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The Roadmap to the Official Count in an Unprecedented Election

Election officials take a series of administrative steps to ensure that the vote count — and the final election results — are accurate.

The Roadmap to the Official Count in an Unprecedented Election
Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images / Contributor

The results that you see on elec­tion night cover­age are not final and offi­cial results. They are instead a combin­a­tion of unof­fi­cial results repor­ted by elec­tion offi­cials and news organ­iz­a­tion projec­tions. The full process for count­ing votes involves a series of steps that take place over the course of weeks. Each of these steps has safe­guards in place to protect the rights of voters and the integ­rity of our elec­tions. They are conduc­ted in public; citizens and the media can (and should) ensure that they are done prop­erly. At each step, voters, candid­ates, and other inter­ested parties can go to court to enforce these safe­guards, if needed.

This guide explains the key steps that elec­tion offi­cials will go through to accur­ately determ­ine the final results of the elec­tion. The steps are gener­ally explained in chro­no­lo­gical order, but it is import­ant to know that timelines vary by state and that many of these steps take place concur­rently. And while our elec­tion systems have many safe­guards to protect against fraud and disen­fran­chise­ment, this guide is specific­ally focused on the admin­is­trat­ive steps that elec­tion offi­cials take to ensure an accur­ate vote count.

1. Receiving Voters’ Ballots

  • What happens: Through Elec­tion Day, registered voters will cast their ballots either at their polling place, by mail, or by drop­ping them off. All in-person ballots must be cast by the time that polls close on Elec­tion Day. Depend­ing on the state, mail ballots must either be sent (post­marked) by Elec­tion Day or received before voting ends on Elec­tion Day.

  • Key admin­is­trat­ive steps to safe­guard an accur­ate count: For both mail voting and in-person voting, elec­tion offi­cials have developed contin­gency plans and integ­rity meas­ures to ensure that tech­nical fail­ures and admin­is­trat­ive errors do not prevent eligible voters from cast­ing ballots.

Mail Voting

  • If a voter requests a mail ballot but does not receive it by Elec­tion Day, every state allows the voter to cast a ballot in-person at their polling place instead. In some cases, voters can cast regu­lar ballots; in other states, these voters must cast a provi­sional ballot.
  • States have a number of meas­ures that protect against malfeas­ance through tamper­ing or imper­son­a­tion. These include the provi­sion of secure drop-off options, chain of custody require­ments, veri­fic­a­tion of mail ballot applic­a­tions, indi­vidu­al­ized ballot envel­opes, and ballot track­ing.
  • In many states, proced­ures are in place to notify voters if there are any errors on their mail ballot envel­opes, and to give voters an oppor­tun­ity to correct these mistakes.

In-Person Voting

  • Through a series of processes known collect­ively as Logic and Accur­acy (L&A) Test­ing, elec­tion offi­cials test all voting equip­ment used for tabu­la­tion to uncover any issues and ensure that votes will be accur­ately coun­ted. All but three states conduct pre-elec­tion L&A test­ing on every machine used in an elec­tion. The other three states (Hawaii, Indi­ana, and Tennessee) require test­ing on at least some of their voting equip­ment. Many states also allow public obser­va­tion of L&A test­ing.
  • If a voter’s eligib­il­ity cannot be determ­ined due to an admin­is­trat­ive error, tech­nical fail­ure, or other reas­ons, federal law requires states to offer the voter a provi­sional ballot (or a suit­able altern­at­ive like same day regis­tra­tion), which can be coun­ted once the elec­tion offi­cial is able to verify the voter’s eligib­il­ity.
  • Beyond provi­sional ballots, most polling places also have backup paper mater­i­als that can be used if voting machines or elec­tronic poll­books malfunc­tion.

2. Processing Mail Ballots

  • What happens: Ballots that are returned by mail or dropped off at a desig­nated loca­tion must be processed by an elec­tion worker before the ballot can be coun­ted. While this proced­ure varies by state, processing gener­ally involves confirm­ing the iden­tity and authen­ti­city of the voter, veri­fy­ing the voter’s inform­a­tion to confirm that they are registered and eligible to vote, and check­ing the signa­ture on the ballot envel­ope against a signa­ture on file. Once the inform­a­tion is veri­fied, the ballot is removed from the envel­ope (and, if applic­able, from the secrecy sleeve) and set aside to be tabu­lated. These extra steps to protect the integ­rity of mail voting help to explain why mail ballots typic­ally take longer to count than in-person ballots.

    Processing timelines vary by state. Some states, includ­ing Arizona, Flor­ida, and North Caro­lina, allow elec­tion offi­cials to begin processing mail ballots upon receipt, or on a desig­nated date before Elec­tion Day. Other states, includ­ing Pennsylvania and Wiscon­sin, do not allow elec­tion offi­cials to begin processing until Elec­tion Day. Because of the time it takes to process mail ballots, this latter group of states is gener­ally not expec­ted to release complete unof­fi­cial results on elec­tion night.

  • Key admin­is­trat­ive steps to safe­guard an accur­ate count: Many states have proced­ures to ensure that ballots are not auto­mat­ic­ally rejec­ted if there is a mistake discovered during processing. At least 19 states — includ­ing Flor­ida, Geor­gia, North Caro­lina, Ohio, and in some situ­ations, Arizona — require elec­tion offi­cials to notify a voter about signa­ture errors (such as fail­ing to sign the secrecy envel­ope) or other errors and to give the voter an oppor­tun­ity to “cure” or fix the error after Elec­tion Day. In some other states, elec­tion offi­cials provide notice and an oppor­tun­ity to cure if the issue can be resolved before Elec­tion Day.

3. Tabulation: Recording Each Vote

  • What happens: Through tabu­la­tion, indi­vidual votes are totaled. Ballots cast at a polling place are typic­ally tabu­lated using scan­ning machines located onsite at the polling place. In the juris­dic­tions that still use direct record­ing elec­tronic (DRE) machines, votes are tabu­lated directly on the machines that voters use to make their selec­tions. Each voting machine gener­ates a “results tape” (which frequently resembles a cash register receipt). While the process varies by state (or even by juris­dic­tion), poll work­ers gener­ally calcu­late the total votes on elec­tion night by summing the totals for each candid­ate and ballot meas­ure from the indi­vidual tapes.

    After they have been processed, mail ballots for the entire juris­dic­tion are typic­ally tabu­lated using scan­ners at the local elec­tion office or other cent­ral loca­tion. In some juris­dic­tions, mail ballots are tabu­lated at polling places instead. While most states begin tabu­lat­ing mail ballots on Elec­tion Day, some states (includ­ing Arizona, Flor­ida, and North Caro­lina) allow elec­tion offi­cials to begin tally­ing mail ballots early as long as results are not released before Elec­tion Day. Elec­tion offi­cials count all absentee ballots that are approved during processing, even if the absentee ballots cannot affect the elec­tion outcome.

  • Key admin­is­trat­ive steps to safe­guard an accur­ate count:
    • Nearly all votes cast this year will have a paper record, includ­ing all votes cast in the 10 states most likely to determ­ine control of the pres­id­ency or U.S. Senate. This paper record is most often the ballot itself that has been hand-marked by a voter, but it may also include a paper prin­tout that shows a voter’s choices after they have been selec­ted on a voting machine. If elec­tion offi­cials have reason to believe that there is an error with the soft­ware vote totals produced by scan­ners, these paper records can be used to verify the accur­acy of the tabu­la­tion process.
    • Poll work­ers must complete a number of steps before clos­ing and leav­ing each polling loca­tion. The indi­vidual processes will vary based on factors such as the equip­ment used, but they gener­ally include resolv­ing discrep­an­cies and, at minimum, docu­ment­ing the cause for any minor discrep­an­cies in
      • the number of voters checked in;
      • the total number of votes cast;
      • the total number of paper ballots at the open­ing of the polls; and
      • the total number of remain­ing paper ballots and spoiled ballots.
    • Poll work­ers typic­ally must sign these docu­ments and affirm their accur­acy. All of the forms, work­sheets, and other paper­work completed by poll work­ers are public docu­ments avail­able for review. These docu­ments are thor­oughly reviewed by elec­tion offi­cials during the canvass process.
    • Poll clos­ing proced­ures gener­ally require elec­tion work­ers to print two copies of the results tape from scan­ners. Poll work­ers also often have to sign the tapes to ensure their legit­im­acy.
    • Most states allow repres­ent­at­ives of campaigns and polit­ical parties to observe polling place clos­ure and tabu­la­tion proced­ures. Many elec­tion offi­cials are setting up cameras and live feeds this year to make trans­par­ency possible even with Covid-related restric­tions on in-person activ­ity.
    • All ballots and records are sealed in secure contain­ers to main­tain a clear chain of custody as mater­i­als are trans­por­ted from polling places to the cent­ral elec­tion office.

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. Unof­fi­cial results are gener­ally posted begin­ning on elec­tion night and continue to be updated 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 offi­cials separ­ately report results from polling places to local elec­tion offices, and then to state elec­tion offices, often using multiple meth­ods. That way, if there is an error with one report­ing method, offi­cials can fall back on the second­ary one.

    Most import­antly, unof­fi­cial results are just that: unof­fi­cial! While many people have lamen­ted the poten­tial lack of elec­tion results on elec­tion night this year, 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).

5. Adjudicating and Counting Provisional Ballots

  • What happens: When voters cast provi­sional ballots, their ballots are placed in an envel­ope with their inform­a­tion and a signed affirm­a­tion that they are eligible to vote. These ballots are then kept separ­ately from regu­lar ballots. In the days follow­ing Elec­tion Day, elec­tion offi­cials exam­ine the inform­a­tion on the envel­ope or affirm­a­tion form and review every provi­sional voter’s creden­tials to determ­ine whether the ballot can be coun­ted. Because of this adju­dic­a­tion process, provi­sional ballots are almost always coun­ted after Elec­tion Day and are typic­ally among the last ballots coun­ted.

    Provi­sional ballots are given to voters on Elec­tion Day (or during early voting) when there is some uncer­tainty about whether the voter is eligible to cast a regu­lar ballot. Typic­ally this is because the voter does not have the right iden­ti­fic­a­tion, the voter is at the wrong polling place, the poll­book does not show that the voter is registered, or there is an admin­is­trat­ive error in the poll­book.

    Many states (includ­ing Arizona, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) also require a voter to cast a provi­sional ballot if the voter already reques­ted a mail ballot but later decided that they wanted to vote in person (in some cases, only if the voter did not surrender the mail ballot at the polls). This allows an elec­tion offi­cial to confirm that the mail ballot was not also returned before accept­ing the in-person vote. (States that provide in-person voters a regu­lar ballot also have systems to ensure that only one ballot counts per voter, includ­ing up-to-date records at the polls that show previ­ous absentee ballot submis­sions, or processes to reject absentee ballots cast by indi­vidu­als who voted in person.) This year, a much larger number of provi­sional votes is expec­ted than in recent elec­tions, as voters exper­i­ence concerns about the post office, delays in receiv­ing their mail ballots, or shifts in how they view the safety of in-person voting. The number of provi­sional ballots may also be greater because there were fewer oppor­tun­it­ies this year for voters to register or update their regis­tra­tions, as access to govern­ment offices and voter regis­tra­tion drives has been limited during the pandemic. In fact, this trend has already been seen during early voting.

  • Key admin­is­trat­ive steps to safe­guard an accur­ate count:
    • For voters who cast provi­sional ballots because they had already reques­ted a mail ballot, provi­sional ballots are coun­ted as soon as elec­tion offi­cials determ­ine that the voter did not also return their mail ballot.
    • Like­wise, provi­sional ballots from voters whose regis­tra­tion status is uncer­tain are coun­ted as soon as the elec­tion offi­cial can verify the voter’s regis­tra­tion.
    • In other cases, such as when a voter does not have the right iden­ti­fic­a­tion, the voter is typic­ally given addi­tional time to show ID or swear an affi­davit before the ballot is rejec­ted.
    • In all cases, federal law requires elec­tion offi­cials to estab­lish a resource for provi­sional voters to determ­ine whether their ballot was coun­ted, and if not, the reason for rejec­tion.

6. Cure Opportunities: Giving Voters the Chance to Fix Technical Mistakes

  • What happens: At least 19 states have a post-elec­tion cure process where voters who cast mail ballots can fix certain errors (such as a miss­ing or mismatched signa­ture) after Elec­tion Day, includ­ing the battle­ground states of Arizona (mismatched signa­ture only), Color­ado, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Nevada, North Caro­lina, and Ohio. The time that voters have to cure errors varies by state, but can be as much as two or three weeks.

  • Key admin­is­trat­ive steps to safe­guard an accur­ate count: Cure processes help ensure that eligible voters do not have their ballots rejec­ted for tech­nical reas­ons.

7. Canvass: Officially Counting and Resolving Discrepancies

  • What happens: In the weeks follow­ing Elec­tion Day, local elec­tion offi­cials from a given county or muni­cip­al­ity meet to determ­ine an offi­cial count. This step is called the canvass. As the Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion states, “The purpose of the canvass is to account for every ballot cast and to ensure that each valid vote is included in the offi­cial elec­tion results.” This step is where elec­tion offi­cials review tabu­la­tion totals along with the docu­ment­a­tion from polling places on the number of votes cast, number of voters checked in, number of ballots remain­ing, and other key inform­a­tion. Elec­tion offi­cials can then compare these numbers to resolve (or explain) any minor discrep­an­cies in vote totals.
  • Key admin­is­trat­ive steps to safe­guard an accur­ate count: The canvass process provides an oppor­tun­ity to discover and address any issues that come about on Elec­tion Day or during the initial report­ing of unof­fi­cial results. To promote trans­par­ency during the process, canvass meet­ings are gener­ally open for public obser­va­tion. And some offi­cials are installing/have installed video cameras and plan to livestream these proceed­ings online.

    Some states also log and publish all changes made to the unof­fi­cial vote totals after elec­tion night. The reas­ons for the changes are repor­ted along with addi­tional comments, such as “caught during canvass.” Most often, the changes correct simple human errors, such as math­em­at­ical mistakes, report­ing the wrong precinct, or report­ing incom­plete results. These mistakes are easily iden­ti­fied and correc­ted when review­ing all docu­ments and reports in context.

8. Audits: Double-Checking the Accuracy of Results

  • What happens: States often require routine post-elec­tion audits, in which elec­tion offi­cials auto­mat­ic­ally check a sample of the paper record — regard­less of whether prob­lems are suspec­ted — to ensure the accur­acy of soft­ware vote totals. These audits often occur concur­rently as part of the canvass process. While most states require a post-elec­tion audit in some form, some states, includ­ing Color­ado and Geor­gia, will conduct “risk-limit­ing audits,” which use stat­ist­ical analyses to determ­ine how many ballots must be hand-coun­ted in order to produce a high level of confid­ence that the paper ballots and soft­ware tallies show the same winner. These audits are considered the “gold stand­ard” by secur­ity experts.
  • Key admin­is­trat­ive steps to safe­guard an accur­ate count: In addi­tion to pre-elec­tion logic and accur­acy test­ing, post-elec­tion audits are one of the primary meas­ures to ensure that soft­ware vote totals are accur­ate and reli­able. Whereas L&A test­ing ensures that the tabu­lat­ors are work­ing accur­ately before an elec­tion, post-elec­tion audits confirm that the voting machines accur­ately tabu­lated ballots cast during the elec­tion. As with logic and accur­acy test­ing, many states allow polit­ical parties or members of the public to observe post-elec­tion audits in an effort to make these proced­ures trans­par­ent.

9. Conducting Recounts (If Necessary)

  • What happens: Results may be subject to a recount during or after the canvass. If the recount discov­ers a discrep­ancy, the results may be updated and, in some states, re-certi­fied. Twenty-two states (includ­ing Arizona, Flor­ida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) require an auto­matic recount whenever the margin of victory falls within a desig­nated range. Forty-three states allow a losing candid­ate to request a recount. But even within these states, timelines vary widely, with some recounts taking place pre-certi­fic­a­tion and others taking place post-certi­fic­a­tion (with the possib­il­ity of over­turn­ing the certi­fic­a­tion).

Depend­ing on the state and why the recount was ordered, recounts may be conduc­ted by machine, by hand, or some combin­a­tion of both.

  • Key admin­is­trat­ive steps to safe­guard an accur­ate count: Recounts provide another oppor­tun­ity to identify and correct vote counts if the elec­tion was very close or if a losing candid­ate has reason to believe that there may be an error in the results. But states also have require­ments to keep candid­ates or parties from abus­ing recount processes: by limit­ing the accept­able reas­ons for a recount, the indi­vidu­als who can request a recount, the timeline for a recount, and/or by requir­ing candid­ates who request a recount to bear the cost if no issues are discovered.

10. Certification: Approving Complete and Final Results

  • What happens: Upon comple­tion of the canvass, local elec­tion offi­cials form­ally approve final results for local elec­tions. Results for statewide elec­tions and other elec­tions that cross multiple elec­tion bound­ar­ies are gener­ally presen­ted to the state — typic­ally the governor, chief elec­tion offi­cial, or a state board — for certi­fic­a­tion. Certi­fied results repres­ent the complete and final results of an elec­tion (unless updated by a recount). Each state sets its own dead­line for certi­fic­a­tion, usually between two weeks to a month after Elec­tion Day. Exact dates of certi­fic­a­tion depend on when other steps are completed and, for the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, the dead­lines set by federal law.
  • Key admin­is­trat­ive steps to safe­guard an accur­ate count: In addi­tion to the work done by local elec­tion offi­cials to valid­ate the final results, state offi­cials respons­ible for certi­fic­a­tion compare inform­a­tion that has been provided during the process and account for any changes that have occurred between unof­fi­cial results and the final certi­fied results. State offi­cials also aggreg­ate local results to obtain certi­fied statewide elec­tion totals. The state certi­fic­a­tion process may involve compar­ing total votes cast to repor­ted turnout, confirm­ing all local paper­work was prop­erly completed and submit­ted, and review­ing any repor­ted prob­lems that may impact final vote totals.