How the Votes Are Counted on Election Day

Voting booths for US election
Marc Piscotty / Getty Images

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. The 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.

Mail-In Ballots

Utah County Election office employee processes a mail-in ballot cast in the 2018 mid-term election.
Utah County Election office employee processes a mail-in ballot cast in the 2018 mid-term election. George Frey/Getty Images

Nine states and the District of Columbia now offer universal “vote by mail” systems in which the states mail ballots to all registered voters. In most other states, voters are required to request an absentee ballot. In the 2016 election, almost 25% (33 million) of all votes were cast using either universal mail or absentee ballots. An estimated 80 million mail-in ballots are expected to be counted in the 2020 presidential election.

Vote-by-mail has proven extremely popular with voters because of its convenience and recently its potential for avoiding the COVID-19 pandemic health risks associated with large crowds at in-person polling places. Despite claims that the use of mail-in ballots increases fraudulent voting, several anti-fraud protections are built into the process.

Once local election officials receive the mailed ballot, they check to voter’s name to ensure the person is registered to vote and is casting their ballot from their registered address. Once those facts are confirmed, the sealed ballot is removed from the outside envelope containing the voter signature to ensure that the voter’s preferences remain confidential. On Election Day—but never before—state election officials count the mail-in ballots. The results of the mail-in votes are then added to the number of votes cast in persons. People who attempt to defraud the mail-in voting system can be charged with election fraud and face fines, prison time, or both.

According to Ellen Weintraub, commissioner of the Federal Election Commission, “There is simply no basis for the conspiracy theory that voting by mail causes fraud.”

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. 

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.

Effect of 2016 Russian Interference on Future Vote Counting

Since Special Counsel Robert Mueller issued his Report on the Investigation Into the Russia Interference in The 2016 Presidential Election in March 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation intended to reform the voting process and protect future elections. While the Senate Judiciary Committee has advanced two similar bipartisan bills on election security, they have yet to be debated by the full Senate.

In addition, several states have announced plans to replace their current voting machines and computerized vote-counting systems with more modern and hacker-proof equipment before the 2020 presidential election.

According to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, local election officials in 254 jurisdictions across 37 states plan to purchase new voting equipment in the “near future.” Election officials in 31 of the 37 states hope to replace their equipment before the 2020 election. In 2002, Congress enacted the Help America Vote Act allocating funds to help states strengthen their election security. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 included $380 million to help states beef up election security, and the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020 authorized an additional $425 million for this purpose.

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