4. Reporting Unofficial Results
What happens: Also referred to as election night reporting, unofficial results reporting represents the first opportunity for members of the public to see vote totals. At this step, election officials transfer vote totals from individual polling places to a central office by phone, electronically, or by transporting a memory device. These totals are then aggregated and posted on local and state election websites. Election officials generally post unofficial results beginning on election night and continue updating the totals until all votes are tabulated and aggregated.
Key administrative steps to safeguard an accurate count: The election websites with unofficial results are not connected to the machines used for tabulation. Instead, election workers separately report results from polling places to local election offices, and then to state election offices, often using multiple methods — for example, by calling in results and transporting a physical memory card with vote totals. That way, if there is an error with one reporting method, officials can fall back on the secondary one for unofficial results.
Most importantly, unofficial results are just that: unofficial! While many people have lamented the lack of election results on election night in recent years, the fact is that results reported by election officials on election night are never complete and final. As outlined below, there are always ballots left to count after election night and additional processes to go through before certifying the official numbers. If a technical failure involving a state or local website interrupts unofficial results reporting or if the reported results are erroneous, there is an opportunity for election officials to verify the accuracy of all vote totals before the results are final. Some of the sources that can be used to check and confirm election night reporting data include the following:
- Paper copies of results posted at polling locations during the closing process
- Poll materials and results that are delivered to the local election office on election night
- Records of aggregated results that local election officials keep before reporting to the state to be posted on election reporting websites
- Outside sources such as the Associated Press, which hires thousands of reporters stationed at polling places and election offices across the country to call in vote totals as they come in. These totals are reported to data entry clerks, who aggregate the individual reports, compare these totals to information reported on state and local websites, inquire about irregularities, and question any results that appear erroneous (this work is aided by abundant information about each jurisdiction’s demographics, polling, mail voting trends, and voting history)
And of course, for nearly all votes, there is a paper record of each vote that officials can check if needed.