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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.