How the Votes Are Counted on Election Day

Voting booths for US election
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After the polls close on Election Day, the task of counting the votes begins. Each city and state use a different method to collect and tabulate ballots. Some are electronic, others paper-based. But the process of counting votes is generally the same no matter where you live and vote.

Preparations

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.

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

Paper Ballots

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 read each ballot to ensure accuracy. Since these ballots are filled out manually, the voter's intention can sometimes be unclear.

In these cases, the election judge either decides how the voter intended to vote or declares that the ballot in question will not be counted.

The most common problem with manual vote counting is, of course, human error. This can also be an issue with punch card ballots, as you'll see.

Punch Cards

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 of ballot cards read by the card reader does not match the manual count, the election judge can order the ballots recounted.

Problems can occur when the ballot cards stick together while being run through the card reader, the reader malfunctions, or the voter has damaged the ballot. In extreme cases, the election judge can order the ballots to be read manually. Punch card ballots and their infamous "hanging chads" led to the controversial vote count in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.

Digital Ballots

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.

According to the Pew Research Center, nearly half of all Americans use optical-scan voting systems, and about a quarter use direct-recording voting machines. Like any electronic device, these voting machines are vulnerable to hacking, at least in theory, experts say.

But as of August 2017, there is little to no evidence suggesting that hacking has occurred.

Recounts and Other Issues

Whenever the results of an election are very close, or problems have occurred with the voting equipment, one or more of the candidates often demand a recount of the votes. 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. Recounts do sometimes change the outcome of an election.

In almost all elections, some votes are lost or incorrectly counted due to voter mistakes, faulty voting equipment, or errors by 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.

Of course, there remains one absolutely certain way to make sure your vote will not be counted: don't vote.