An election staffer sorts through ballots as part of the vote counting process.

By Meara Geraty
Digital Content Coordinator, RepresentUs

November 10, 2020

America spent four long days watching election officials carefully count votes. But how does the process of counting votes actually work? Here’s how it happens, and why you can be sure the election results are accurate.

Who counts the votes in an election?

Your community members! Across the nation, there are between 7,000 and 10,000 local election officials that are either appointed or elected, depending on the state. They come from all walks of life and all political stripes, and they are united by their patriotic duty to the American people and our democracy.

"We’re citizens very concerned with the health of our democracy, and we act in about as bipartisan or nonpartisan a way as anybody could. While we have to make our own selections on a ballot, the integrity of the process is so much more important to us than the results of any contest," said Adrian Fontes, an election official in Maricopa County, Arizona, talking to Vox.

Partisan observers are also in the room to monitor vote counting, and each state has its own rules about how and when an observer can intervene. Importantly, each party has the same access and opportunity.

What is canvassing?

Canvassing is the process by which officials verify, process, and count every single ballot before including them in the final election result. State laws ensure security, specifying everything from who participates in the canvass, to when it starts and ends, what information it contains, and what is open to the public.

Like everything else about U.S. elections, canvassing varies by state and even locality. Wherever you are, the process is transparent, bipartisan, and rigorously documented and vetted. Officials maintain a written report of every action taken during the canvass and who is present.

The order in which votes are tallied can vary, but typically votes are processed in this order:

  • Election Day votes
  • Early votes
  • Mail-in ballots
  • Challenged ballots (when a voter’s eligibility is questioned)
  • Overseas/military ballots
  • Provisional ballots 

The Ballot Counting Process

How are mail-in ballots counted? A staffer in a face shield carefully prepares envelopes and ballots.

Remember, everything about our elections is determined locally, so this process varies by county. But generally speaking, the canvassing process follows similar steps across the board:

How are ballots verified and prepared?

One of the first steps is to get an accurate picture of how many voters cast ballots. Each precinct and early voting location compares the number of voters on the sign-in sheet or poll list with the number of ballots available to be counted. If there are any discrepancies, officials investigate, resolve, document them, and submit them to the Canvass Board for approval.

For mail-in ballots, officials ensure the voter is registered, hasn’t already voted, returned the vote in its own designated envelope, and that there is no damage to the envelope. Then, the signature on the envelope is compared with the one on file. Again, any inconsistencies are documented and investigated. Questionable ballots become “challenged ballots” and are set aside, along with spoiled (damaged) ballots or provisional ballots (those cast by a voter who must take an extra step before their vote can be counted).

Every precaution is taken to protect the voter's privacy and prevent different treatment of ballots. In Utah for example, all of the above is done with the envelope closed so that no staff can see who the vote is for or the party affiliation of the voter. Even when envelopes are sliced open, the voter’s signature and ballot can’t be seen at the same time.

Ballots are removed, unfolded, and examined for damage around a table of multiple poll workers and election judges, with bipartisan observers standing by.

Any damaged or “spoiled” votes that won’t be easily read by tabulating machines are carefully duplicated onto a clean ballot. Spoiled ballots include ballots that were torn or stained, or not marked with the correct device. This is what election staff are doing in videos like this one. These are marked, tracked, reviewed by two members of the canvassing board, and the originals are stored.

Any provisional or challenged ballots are reconciled, usually after officials process the rest of the votes. If any ballot is rejected, it must be reviewed by an election supervisor and made available to the Canvass Board for their review. Some states also require the voter to be notified.

Every step of the way, the total number of ballots is tracked and reconciled, so that no ballots get lost, and improper votes can’t be added to the system. Any transportation of ballots is generally done by law enforcement officers.

How are the ballots counted?

The counting process begins: Staffers feed prepared ballots into vote counting machines for tabulation.

After verifying the legitimacy of ballots, opening millions of envelopes, and carefully tracking every step, election officials are ready to count the votes!

Commonly, ballots are fed into scanners, which tabulate the results. In some states and circumstances, votes will be manually counted or double-checked. Results from the tabulation are then shared with officials, parties, and eventually, the public.

Often, mail-in ballot results are not reported until election night or the following days, though some states are allowed to begin preparing them ahead of time. Many states allow mail ballots postmarked by Election Day to be received after Election Day, especially for our overseas military members. For example, Washington state will count overseas military ballots received within 20 days of a general election, so long as they are sent before the close of polls on Election Day. Counting continues until all votes are included.

How are ballots certified?

You may have heard that the results media and news outlets are reporting aren’t “official,” and that’s true! Though still largely accurate, these are preliminary counts. No election results are official until every valid ballot has been counted and the entire process has been reviewed and approved by the Canvass Board. This is why everything is documented so carefully.

Staff provide certified tallies of all valid ballots cast, information on how ballots were cast (early, in person, or by mail), how many were rejected, challenged, or provisional, as well as a list of issues encountered and any corrective action taken. All of this is then certified by the Canvass Board in a public meeting, with members of the media present to report on the findings.

This careful process takes time, and accuracy is always the priority. No results are official until the process is completed. That said, early "unofficial" results shared while the ballots are counted by state officials are still largely accurate. We can often know enough to project a winner before the process is complete, unless results are too close to be called.

For example, we know President-elect Biden won California even though only 89% of precincts are reporting as of this publication. Biden's lead is too big in the reliably blue state for President Trump to catch up. In Georgia on the other hand, results are within a few thousand votes, and a recount will be undertaken to ensure accurate results. Due to the rigorous process of validating and counting ballots, recounts rarely change the tally by more than a few hundred votes.

How do we know elections are secure?

Bipartisan officials oversee the entire process to ensure election security.

With hundreds of millions of votes moving through the system, irregularities and issues are bound to come up. When that happens, officials investigate and take any steps necessary, including voiding votes deemed illegitimate, or processing cases of fraud.

That’s why you don’t have to worry about erroneous claims of dead people voting or cats being sent a ballot. Even if someone stole a deceased person’s identity to vote, the vote would be invalidated and the perpetrator prosecuted when officials investigate and verify voters. Your cat isn’t on the voter rolls – so even if they got their paws on a ballot, it would never make it into the final vote count.

Voter fraud is a felony under federal law and in most states punishable by fines, up to 5 years in prison, or both. Our election officials are there to investigate and charge anyone suspected of fraud, and they do. But because the crime is difficult to commit, easily found and punished, and unlikely to make any difference in an election, actual voter fraud is quite rare.

You’re more likely to get struck by lightning than to commit election fraud — and even then, you won’t get away with it!

Remember, the details vary from state to state and county to county. You can always learn more about how vote counting works in your area on your county clerk's website.