Officials warn 'it's going to take hours' to count absentee ballots

On Tuesday, Nov. 3, millions of Americans will make their voices heard at the ballot box, but how soon will we learn the results of this presidential election? The results may not be finalized until hours after the polls are closed. 

In Wisconsin, election workers cannot start counting absentee ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day. In Milwaukee, those will all end up at the city's Central Count location, and officials say it could take until Wednesday morning before the job is done. 

"We wanted you to see this, to see what it’s going to look like ahead of time before this looks like Grand Central Station," said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. 

At Milwaukee's Central Count location downtown, 400 workers will tackle the job of processing absentee ballots on Election Day. 

"The first numbers that will come out will be the numbers from the 173 polling places, but that will not tell even half of the story," said Mayor Barrett.

By Tuesday night, Milwaukee election officials expect to receive 175,000 absentee ballots. More than 160,000 have already been returned.

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"It’s going to take us hours, and hours and hours to accurately count 175,000 ballots," said Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission. 

Those ballots can’t be opened, let alone counted until the clock strikes 7 a.m. Tuesday.

"I'm still going to go with my projection of the wee hours of Nov. 4, 3 or 4 a.m., but it could be longer depending on how many people actually show up on Election Day (to work)," said Woodall-Vogg.

Woodall-Vogg said the COVID-19 pandemic is posing a number of challenges, including staffing. 

"So we have overstaffed at both our polling places and at Central Count to prepare for about a 20% no-show rate at both," she said.

At Central Count, workers will have access to PPE, and be split into pods to limit interaction during what Woodall-Vogg expects will be a long night. 

"We are not able to release any results that are absentee until we have all absentee results, and that's where the delay will be," said Woodall-Vogg.