Perhaps no one wants the election to end more than the vote counters themselves.
With tens of thousands of ballots still to be counted in states where President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. were separated by slim margins — and an anxious nation riveted by every change in the count — a small army of workers continued to tally votes four days after the polls closed.
Beyond the tedium and the exhaustion, they were facing the added stress of trying to keep themselves safe as coronavirus cases in the United States hit record highs. Still, with masks covering their faces and gloves guarding their hands, they soldiered on into Saturday.
In some election offices, safety measures including social distancing, meant that fewer ballot counters could work at the same time than in previous elections, slowing the process.
One election official in the Westmoreland County, Pa., tested positive for the coronavirus in the last few days, according to Douglas W. Chew, a county elections commissioner, who said that no other employees had tested positive as of Saturday.
And, while many polling stations use scanners to process thousands of ballots rapidly, at this point in the count they were also processing ballots that could not be read by machines for a variety of reasons.
While each state has its own rules and methods, the scene in West Chester, Pa., was a familiar one. Election workers, seated under fluorescent lights, sorting and feeding ballots by hand into high-speed scanners. At this station, weary workers were given the weekend off and will resume counting inside the university gym Monday morning.
But others worked through the night and into the morning on Saturday. While they counted, independent observers watched over their shoulders and some places offered livestreaming feeds online for members of the public to watch scenes like the one at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. It was not exactly packed with action, but more like suspended animation as workers in neon yellow and orange jackets sat at opposite ends of tables methodically tabulating ballots.
The process could be tedious but no detail was too small for a citizenry hungry for information. Local media in Pennsylvania was filled on Saturday morning with descriptions of how ballot counters would load envelopes into machines twice: first to slice them open and then a second time to open the smaller, inner “secrecy” envelopes. Ballot counters then unfold the ballots by hand and feed them into high-speed scanners. From there, the results are saved onto memory sticks, WHYY-FM, a public radio station in Philadelphia, told its listeners.
Evelyn Smith, a graduate student in economics at the University of Michigan who counted ballots for 13 hours on Election Day, said she found the monotony of the process tedious, but meditative.
For a salary of $13 an hour, she worked from a high-school cafeteria in Ann Arbor, Mich., sorting ballots and delivering them to the next station. She said election officials at her center wore masks, but it was not always possible to maintain social distancing.
“It’s a risky thing to do, but it’s essential work,” she said.
Phil Armstrong, the county executive in Lehigh County, Pa., said it was impossible to respect social-distancing rules at the vote-counting center, given all of the ballot counters, lawyers and election observers from both parties who were present.
“It was pretty crowded,” he said. Still, the vibe was upbeat, and different tables of ballot counters had friendly competitions about how many ballots they had counted in a certain period of time.