Why does it take so long to count ballots?

We’ve been hearing from a great number of voters asking us why it seems to take so long for ballots to be counted.  It can be extremely frustrating to wait for official results of the election, but it’s important to know our counties are accurately processing and counting each eligible ballot.
Arizona has more than 2.3 million voters who receive an early ballot and over the last few elections people have returned their ballots closer and closer to Election Day.  Even this year, thousands were dropped off at the polls on Tuesday.  The effect of this trend is that counties have a lot of ballots to process and tabulate after the election itself.
Early ballots that have yet to be counted fall into two groups: “early early ballots” and “late early ballots.”  Early early ballots are ballots mailed to the USPS by November 2.  Late early ballots are those delivered to the USPS after November 2 and/or dropped off at the polling place.  While we don’t have specific information how they are divided, we believe most of the 600K are late early ballots.
The time consuming aspect of tabulating early ballots is verifying signatures on envelopes. The signature verification component of early voting is largely an unautomated task that requires people with specific handwriting analysis training.  This process ensures the integrity of the election and prevents people from fraudulently signing another person’s ballot.  While feeding ballots through the tabulation machines is fairly quick, signature verification takes time.
The official canvass, or formal certification of the general election results, will be signed on December 5 in accordance with state law.  Shortly after, the meeting of the Electoral College will be held on December 19.  While this feels like a lifetime away, it provides the counties the time they need to finish their work and the County Board of Supervisors to approve their results. 
Moving forward we’ll continue to look for technological solutions that could speed up the process.