Election Night Behind the Scenes: How Votes Are Counted and Results Reported

Every four years, America stays up way past its bedtime to stare at maps and charts telling us, brightly and gradually, who will be the next leader of the free world. But how do they count votes on election night, really? How are all those votes counted so quickly? Like so many other aspects of politics in America, the answer is: it’s complicated.

The truth is that methods vary wildly from state-to-state, meaning not all voting or vote-counting is created equal. It’s an imperfect system, which is why non-profits such as Verified Voting have made it their mission to cut down on election night chaos. Read on to find out how the votes are counted in US elections and why things don’t always go smoothly.

Make your voice heard for the 2020 elections. REGISTER TO VOTE!

Photo: Paramount Pictures

  • Polling Place Equipment Varies County-by-County

    The voting experience in the United States isn’t a standardized thing: depending on where you live—even down to the county level—you’re going to use a different piece of equipment to cast your vote at the polling place. This means that how your vote is counted, exactly, will also vary.

    As of 2016, most Americans will vote using a paper ballot counted via optical scanner. Residents of Washington, Oregon, and Colorado vote by mail, but the ballots are still ultimately tabulated using optical scanners. Voters in seven states, including Nevada, Utah, and Georgia, exclusively use paperless Direct Recording Electronic Voting Machines (DREs), meaning only the paper absentee ballots require optical scanning. But some states—absentee ballots aside—are entirely paper and paper trail free.

  • There Isn't Always a Paper Trail

    Some states using DREs also use Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail Printers (VVPATs), which provide physical “receipts” of cast ballots. However, voters in 14 states will use DREs without paper copies of their vote—a troubling fact for those concerned with election fraud, since there would be no way to audit the results if the data was lost. Nevada and Utah, for example, exclusively use DREs without VVPATs.

    Florida is one of those 14 states with some paper-trail-free precincts. In 2006, Democrat Christine Jennings lost the race for the 13th Congressional District by just 369 votes. She claimed that 18,000 votes went uncounted, but without a paper trail, had no recourse. The courts ultimately upheld her loss to Republican Vern Buchanan.

  • Votes Aren't Tabulated at the Polling Places

    In precincts using paper ballots—i.e., two-thirds of the country—ballots and the electronic tally they leave behind are not counted at polling places, but are instead moved to a centralized location (or many locations, depending on where you live). Before they’re transported, poll workers shut down the machines, but not before manually checking a few things. In Atlanta, for example, the machines are checked to make sure the count matches the number of paper certificates voters filled out before voting and the electronic database of voters created using the yellow swipe cards issued to each voter.

  • Some Poll Workers Hand-Deliver Memory Cards

    The process of getting the results to the centralized tabulation centers varies across the country. Some poll workers, in teams of two, deliver memory cards from the voting machines by simply driving them there. This makes traffic and traffic accidents a concern, especially in dense metropolitan areas.

    The couple making the delivery is typically bipartisan to keep things on-the-level. Besides the memory cards, the teams also deliver paper ballots, when applicable. For absentee ballots, the optical scanning is done on-site by teams of volunteers, a tedious process that sometimes lasts until 2:00 a.m.

  • Some Ballots Are Delivered via Helicopter

    Not every precinct relies on volunteer teams to deliver the ballots and memory cards to county election offices and tabulation centers. In Los Angeles County, they’re delivered via sheriff’s helicopter and patrol car. There’s a good reason for the extra security and expediency: the county has to count around 3 million ballots from 4,500 polling locations across 4,000-square miles. The ballots and cards don’t go straight from the polling places to be counted, either: they head to 70 “check-in centers” first, before the sheriff’s department takes over.

  • Write-In Votes Might Not Get Counted at All

    If you’re looking to buck the system and write in the name of your preferred candidate, you better make sure it’s even allowed. In 34 states, a write-in candidate has to fill out paperwork declaring their wish to be written-in, meaning a vote for Seymour Butts is a total throwaway unless Mr. Butts took care of business beforehand. In some states, write-in votes don’t even count, meaning you’re just wasting your time. It’s also a waste of time to write-in a candidate for vice president as your presidential pick, as some threatened to do with Mike Pence in 2016.