Across America, voters cast their ballots in several different ways: by mail, in-person with a paper ballot, or by using a ballot marking or direct recording device. No matter how a voter casts their ballot, though, all those ballots must be counted before any contest can be called and any victory speech can be made. So, who counts your ballot?
Whether voting by mail or in-person, every voter receives a geo-specific ballot that ensures they are casting their votes on the ballot designed for their precinct or district. In some jurisdictions, votes are cast in locations that are specifically set aside for their precinct, and votes are totaled in that location at the precinct level. In other jurisdictions, voters cast ballots at vote centers, where people from any district can vote in the same location within the city or county and votes are then sorted and counted.
Most of the time, all the votes that are cast in-person on election day are counted as they are cast with the assistance of electronic tabulators. In fact, only 0.2% of all registered voters in the country live in jurisdictions where most ballots are counted by hand.1 When polls close on election night, each tabulator will record the number of ballots cast and votes counted, and those results will either be physically brought to a central counting location (such as a county board of elections) using printouts or removable media or securely transmitted to a state or county server for results aggregation and reporting. For the small number of ballots counted by hand, those totals will also be relayed to the county or state to be included in aggregated results.
Voting By Mail
As of 2022, eight states – California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington – conduct their elections entirely by mail.2 Outside of those states, a number of other jurisdictions offer no-excuse absentee voting, or the ability to request a mail-in ballot for any reason, and additional federal rules provide mail-in ballots for uniformed and overseas voters. This means that there are millions of voters every year who submit their ballots by mail, and those results need to be tallied and aggregated just like ballots submitted in-person.
For voters who cast a ballot by mail, the rules for when a ballot can be pre-canvassed (opening a ballot, checking signatures or other verification processes, and separating it from the signed envelope to protect ballot secrecy) and when it can be officially counted vary greatly state-by-state. Each state also has its own rules on when mail ballots must arrive, whether that’s the day before, the day of, or within a set number of days after the election, to be counted in the vote total.
States that don’t allow pre-canvassing before election day, or that begin scanning absentee ballots at the close of polls, add a large number of absentee ballots to vote totals at the very end of the vote counting process. This surge can cause voter confusion for anyone unaware of their county or state’s vote-counting process. However, the uptick in votes only occurs due to the time it takes to authenticate and process a mail-in ballot and doesn’t indicate a suspicious “dump” of ballots or a last-minute surge of votes for one candidate or another.
For states that conduct their elections entirely by mail, and states with a high volume of absentee ballots, ballots are received and processed through central scanners, which record and count each vote and aggregate the results. Like in-person voting, those results are then collected and reported at the end of the election after polls have been closed.
Early and Accessible Voting
In addition to voting by mail, many jurisdictions allow voters to cast a ballot early and in-person through early voting programs. The process of early voting is similar to voting in-person on election day, but the individual votes cannot be tallied at the end of each voting session to prevent officials and voters from knowing early results. Instead, the polls must be opened and closed each day and results are stored securely until the end of early voting, when results are recorded and merged with in-person and absentee ballots.
Some voters with disabilities may require the use of an accessible voting device, no matter if they live in a vote-by-mail state or an in-person precinct voting state. Under federal law, all states must make accommodations for voters with disabilities, including ensuring the availability of accessible devices such as Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) or Ballot Marking Devices (BMD). Ballots cast using DREs or BMDs are recorded and stored just like ballots cast early or in-person on election day and can be tallied and aggregated with all other results once polls are closed and results start being reported.
When the polls finally close on election night, voting may be complete, but the work for election officials is far from over. As soon as polls close across jurisdictions, result tabulation and aggregation begin in earnest, with each precinct or voting center closing the polls at their individual location and tallying their unofficial results before sending them to the county or state for results aggregation. Once these results are compiled and added to the tally of early, absentee, and sometimes provisional ballots, they are published as unofficial results and winners can be declared in contests where there are clear winners. It’s important to note that these results are declared unofficial until they undergo canvassing and certification to be verified and become official results reported by the state.
Recounts and Certification
Occasionally, contests end up being too close to call, and it triggers a mandatory recount. Rules and thresholds for triggering mandatory recounts vary state to state, with restrictions on whether they can be retabulated on the primary voting system, conducted using a second independent tabulation system (Florida is one such example), or must include a hand count of ballots. In all cases, the recounted total is compared to the original total and the results are compared to determine the outcome of the contest and declare the winner(s).
In some states, candidates are allowed to request recounts when the margin of defeat is higher than the threshold for triggering an automatic recount but below a second threshold for contesting the results. In these cases, each state sets the rules for when they will accept a requested recount and who will pay for the cost of staffing and equipment to retabulate the results.
In the majority of contests, however, once the unofficial results are calculated, each jurisdiction begins the process of certification. For results to be certified, jurisdictions go through a series of processes known as canvassing, which include reconciling the number of voters who cast a ballot with the number of ballots tallied, verifying the authenticity and eligibility of absentee and provisional ballots, and adjudicating ballots which were unable to be tabulated during the original counting process. This process can take days to weeks to complete, depending on the size of the jurisdiction.
Once canvassing is complete and any differences are accounted for, if applicable, a jurisdiction’s unofficial results are certified and recorded as the final official results. This marks the end of the formal counting process; however, this is not the end of verifying election results in many states.
Trust in Results
A post-election audit is defined as an audit that checks that the equipment and procedures used to count votes during an election worked properly and that the election yielded the correct outcome.3 Following an election, 45 states and Washington, DC conduct post-election audits that meet these standards, whether through a traditional post-election audit process or through the completion of a risk-limiting audit (RLA).
In a traditional audit, jurisdictions are given a percentage, up to 100%, of precincts, machines, or ballots, that they must pull and recount to compare the results to the initial tabulation. Depending on state regulations, this audit is either completed by a manual hand count or by conducting an independent tabulation of ballots using technology independent of the primary voting system. Currently, more than 60 counties in New York and Florida use Clear Ballot technology to complete their post-election audits, in addition to the states of Maryland, South Carolina, and Vermont.
In addition to state-mandated post-election audits, an increase in jurisdictions have been looking to add an additional layer of transparency to their elections and boost confidence in their results by completing separate, independent verifications. In Colorado, for example, several counties have completed a comparative retabulation using Clear Ballot technology in addition to hand counts and have provided ballot images online for voters to view. With voter distrust continuing to challenge election officials across the country heading into the midterm elections, it is likely that more counties and states will expand their post-election processes to include additional verification and transparency measures as they work to bolster confidence in results.
ABOUT CLEAR BALLOT
As the leader in election innovation, Clear Ballot has introduced a new class of tools and a modern approach to voting, enabling unprecedented speed, accuracy, and transparency that officials and the voting public have sought for decades. Clear Ballot entered the election industry with its first product in 2012, disrupting the industry with the nation’s first independent, automated audit, and four years later developed a complete voting system which is now the fastest growing voting system in the industry. Clear Ballot’s election technology is currently used in twelve states, serving more than 34 million registered voters.
1 Source: Verified Voting, 2022.
2 Source: National Conference of State Legislatures, 2022.