A lot of attention will be paid to election administration in this final week leading up to Election Day – and rightfully so. Across the country, more than 21 million voters have already cast a ballot using a pre-election voting option offered in their state, and still more are certain to make their voice heard at the ballot box over the coming days before November 8.
But what of the days just after Election Day? As many Americans turn to media outlets to call races based on unofficial results as early as election night, what steps will local election officials take to actually complete the critical steps to election administration that come after voters cast their ballots – the steps that assure all Americans that every element of our elections is fair, free, and worthy of their trust? As it turns out, quite a few.
Mail Ballot Verification
Before turning our attention to the period after Election Day, it’s worth reviewing the rigorous steps local election officials take to verify mail ballots before they are counted at all. In some states, including Florida and Ohio, that verification process can begin well ahead of Election Day, as local election officials are permitted to “pre-process” ballots. By allowing local officials to pre-process ballots, some states are able to report nearly-complete unofficial results on election night because intensive steps to verify ballots were able to begin in the days and weeks leading up to Election Day. In contrast, states that do not offer pre-processing, such as Pennsylvania, may experience a longer wait for unofficial election results, as local officials are not permitted to begin verifying ballots until Election Day.
So whether before or on Election Day, just what steps go into ballot verification? Again, it generally depends on the state. In Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, election officials can verify ballots by reviewing the signature a voter provides on their ballot envelope – a process that may include party-appointed observers. For example, in Florida, a law passed in 2021 explicitly permitted party representatives to be present during mail ballot verification, as well as those party representatives’ ability to challenge election officials’ decisions to accept or reject ballots. In other states, such as Texas or Georgia, ballot verification requires election officials to check the identification number (such as driver’s license, state ID, or social security number) provided on a ballot’s return envelope.
A key element of the ballot verification process is the opportunity it may afford voters to correct – or “cure” – minor mistakes on their mail ballot envelopes. Currently, 31 states offer voters that opportunity, which could include providing a missing signature, address, or date to their ballot return envelope.
Poll Observers & Challengers
Since 2020, a number of states have enacted new laws to expand party representatives’ access and authority at polling locations, ballot verification sites, and ballot counting sites – increasing their ability to move throughout polling and counting locations, observe election activities, and interact with election workers. Party representatives at polling locations generally fall within one of two categories.
The first, poll observers, may observe election activities and discuss perceived election irregularities with election workers. Poll observers generally have a limited role at polling locations, being permitted to watch various facets from the voting process, often from within a specifically-marked area within a polling place. State laws generally prohibit poll observers from interacting directly with voters, accompanying voters into voting booths, making video or audio recordings, or generally interfering with election workers as they perform their duties. Over the past two years, ten states have passed laws to increase poll observers’ access to election processes at polling locations, sometimes limiting the ability of election officials to discipline or eject poll observers who break the rules set out for them. One notable example is Texas, where Senate Bill 1 increased poll observers’ freedom of movement significantly – even permitting observers to enter the vehicle being used by a voter with a disability to vote curbside. SB 1 also prevents election officials from ejecting a poll observer based solely on a report of harassment from a voter and creates new criminal penalties for election officials who may stand in their way.
The second type of party representative at polling locations are poll challengers, who generally have greater authority to directly interact with voters and election officials. In Arizona, any authorized party representative or any registered voter may challenge a voter’s eligibility at a polling location, with challenges permitted based on perceived failures to meet a qualification for registration (such as age, citizenship, or residency) or for having already voted in a given election this process that can take place orally rather than in writing and requires immediate resolution from election officials. In Michigan, party-affiliated poll challengers may inspect poll books and ballots, as well as challenge the eligibility of voters and the actions of election officials. Across the country, increased access for party representatives at polling locations has sparked increased concern over the potential for voter intimidation, the disruption or delay of voting processes, and even violent activity at polling locations.
Though not affiliated with a political party, and not as the result of recent legislation, some “observers” have already made their presence felt in states like Arizona. There, local groups have dispatched individuals – some masked and armed – to stand near secure ballot drop boxes. Some have gone further, photographing, videotaping, or even following voters as they toe the line between observation and intimidation. It will be important to monitor similar behavior in Arizona and throughout the country in the days leading up to Election Day.
Once polls close, local election officials begin the process of counting in-person and mail ballots. Votes cast in person on Election Day are counted at their respective polling location, which may follow a precinct model (in which only voters who live within a particular area of a jurisdiction may cast a ballot) or a vote center model (in which voters from anywhere within a jurisdiction may cast a ballot). Contrastingly, mail ballots are generally counted at a central location within the town, city, or county conducting a given election.
While the vast majority of ballots are easily read by tabulation equipment, ballots that are damaged, contain under/overvotes, or are otherwise unreadable by automatic tabulation equipment may require additional review by election workers. In those circumstances, those election workers make note of the number of ballots counted, spoiled, or left blank in order to report to supervisory election officials. Vote totals reported by tabulation equipment are also compared to the number of voters who checked into a polling location’s voter list.
Nearly every state provides detailed guidance to election officials on how to determine a voter’s intent when it is in question. A number of states provide a definition of what constitutes a valid vote in statute, while others may define the process election workers must follow to determine a voter’s intent. Arizona requires officials who are reviewing early voting ballots by hand to agree unanimously on a voter’s intent, otherwise the official in charge of the canvass will make the final determination.
Many states have laws establishing deadlines for the transmission of results to county or state election officials. Texas county officials must report precinct results, including Election Day and early votes, within 24 hours of polls being closed. Michigan requires each precinct’s board of inspectors to deliver a completed statement of returns by 11 a.m. on the day following an election. Some states also establish periodic reporting requirements for the transmission of unofficial results. For example, in Florida, canvassing boards must report all in-person early voting and mail ballots tabulated within 30 minutes of polls being closed, providing additional unofficial result tallies every 45 minutes thereafter. In 2020, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose required counties to report vote totals for absentee ballots within 30 minutes of polls being closed, with additional regular reporting requirements for unofficial results thereafter.
After ballots of all types are counted, local election officials conduct the “canvass.” The canvass is a single report of votes for an entire jurisdiction that encompasses total figures from precinct and mail ballot tabulation. The canvass requires election officials to confirm the accuracy of reported totals from various precincts and counting locations within a given jurisdiction, ensure precinct officials complied with chain of custody and ballot reconciliation requirements, and verify ballot totals to make sure all records concerning the number of ballots issued to voters match. If officials discover a discrepancy from a particular precinct, precinct officials are summoned to explain or resolve the discrepancy before the canvass can be completed. In all states, the canvass is the stage in which local officials address concerns or resolve discrepancies around vote totals.
Some states establish a deadline by which the local canvass must be completed. Ohio requires the local canvass to be complete no later than 21 days after Election Day. Michigan law sets a deadline at 14 days after Election Day. Other states establish an exact date for the local canvass. North Carolina requires the canvass to be conducted on the 10th day after Election Day at 11 a.m.
Other states require a counting audit at the county level shortly before or after the completion of the canvass. Arizona law authorizes counties to conduct a hand count audit of unofficial precinct and early voting results prior to the completion of the canvass, permitting local officials to compare the tabulation results in selected races in 2% of precincts and among 1% of early voting ballots. Depending on the scale of any discrepancy, that hand count can expand to cover a greater percentage of ballots – going so far as to possibly include every ballot cast within a county. In Florida, counties conduct a tabulation audit after the canvass, with the option to conduct the audit either by hand for one race in 1-2% of precincts or by a machine count for all races in at least 20% of precincts.
Local & State Certification
Different officials or agencies are responsible for certifying local election results following the completion of the canvass in each state. Some states require an existing election official or agency to certify local results, while others appoint a special body for the task. In Georgia, the sole task of the superintendent of elections is to certify local results. In Arizona, county results are certified by the county’s board of supervisors. In Michigan and Ohio, bipartisan local canvassing boards are appointed to certify local results.
Above all else, it’s important to remember that state law generally leaves little discretion to those designated to certify election results. Read in their entirety, state laws are designed for any errors to be discovered and corrected at the canvass stage prior to certification.
Local races that are determined entirely by the votes cast at the local level are certified at the local level, after which the local board or clerk will declare the winner of a given race. Contrastingly, local officials transmit their own certified vote totals for multicounty, state, and federal offices and ballot questions to the agency responsible for canvassing and certifying statewide results.
Prior to the statewide certification of an election, a state body will typically complete a statewide canvass that involves little more than compiling the results reported across the state. State law may place this responsibility with different officers or agencies. For example, in Texas, the governor conducts the statewide canvass for all elections other than the race for governor and lieutenant governor, which is completed by the incoming state legislature.
Some states specify the date on which a state canvassing body must begin to meet, though some contingencies exist if results are yet to be reported from some counties. In Arizona, the secretary of state must generally begin the state canvass 27 days after Election Day. In Michigan, the state canvassing board must meet 20 days after Election Day, though an additional 20 day buffer period does exist. In Florida, the Florida Elections Canvassing Commission must meet at 9 a.m. on the 14th day after the election to canvass state results.
State certification generally comes immediately after the completion of the state canvass, at which point winning candidates receive a certificate of election and the results of statewide ballot questions and constitutional amendments are certified.