How the Votes are Counted on Election Day

What Happens to Your Ballot After the Polls Close?

U.S. Presidential vote
Marc Piscotty / Getty Images

Well, it's finally Election Day and it looks like we'll be going to the polls in record numbers. But after the last voter has pulled the handle, punched the card or touched the screen, how will they count all those votes and how do they make sure the votes are counted accurately and fairly?

Ballot Boxes are Sealed and Sent to the Counting Facility

As soon as the last voter has voted, the election judge at each polling place makes sure poll workers have sealed all of the ballot boxes and then sends the sealed ballot boxes to a central vote counting facility.

This is usually a government office, like a city hall or county courthouse. Where computerized voting machines are used, the election judge will send the media on which the votes are recorded to the counting facility. The ballot boxes or computer media are usually transported to the counting facility by sworn law enforcement officers.

Ballots Arrive at the Counting Facility

At the central counting facility, certified observers from the political parties or candidates watch the actual vote counting to make sure the count is fair.

How Paper Ballots are handled

In areas where paper ballots are still used, election officials manually read each ballot and add up the number of votes in each race. Sometimes two or more election officials will read each ballot to ensure accuracy. Since these ballots are filled out manually, it can sometimes be unclear how the voter intended to vote. In these cases, the election judge either decides how the voter intended to vote, or declares that the voter's vote for that race will not be counted.

The most common problem with manual vote counting is, of course, human error.

How Punch Card Ballots are Handled

Where punch card ballots are used, election officials open each ballot box, manually count the number of ballots cast and run the ballots through a mechanical punch card reader. Software in the card reader records the votes in each race and prints out totals.

If the total number ballot cards read by the card reader does not match the manual count, the election judge can order the ballots recounted. Most problems occur when the ballot cards stick together while being run through the card reader, the reader malfunctions or the ballot has been damaged by the voter. In extreme cases, the election judge can order the ballots to be read manually. It was punch card ballots and their infamous "hanging chads" that lead to the controversial vote count in Florida during the controversial 2000 presidential election.

How Computerized Ballots are Handled

With the newer, fully computerized voting systems, including optical scan and direct recording electronic systems, the vote totals may be transmitted automatically to the central counting facility. In some cases, these devices record their votes on removable media, such as hard disks or cassettes, which are transported to the central counting facility for counting.

Lost or Damaged Ballots and other Mistakes

You should know that in almost all elections, some votes will be lost or incorrectly counted due to voter mistakes, voting equipment malfunctions, or errors on the part of election officials. From local elections to presidential elections, officials are constantly working to improve the voting process, with the goal of making sure that every vote is counted and counted correctly.

About Vote Recounts

Whenever the results of an election are very close, or problems have occurred with the voting equipment, a recount of the votes will often be demanded by one or more of the candidates. Some state laws call for mandatory recounts in any close election. The recounts may be done by a manual hand-count of ballots or by the same type of machines used to make the original count. Yes, recounts do sometimes change the outcome of an election.

Of course, there remains one absolutely certain way to make sure your vote -- your voice -- will NOT be counted: Don't vote.