The way Americans choose their President is complicatedー even in a relatively normal election year. In 2020, voters are facing a pandemic, an underfunded postal service and the closure of polling locations in battleground states like Georgia, Ohio, Arizona, and Texas. Once you know how votes are counted, you can understand why yours counts.
In most states, there are four ways Americans can vote: in person before election day, on election day, mailing an absentee ballot, or placing it in a secure dropbox.
In Person Voting
Each of the more than 3,000 counties in the US has its own rules, but voting in person generally looks something like this: When they show up to vote, election officials check each voter’s name and address to make sure they’re registered, and voting in the right place. These employees always work in teams of two, and both workers can’t be from the same political party. Voters cast their ballots in private, either by filling out a paper ballot or using an electronic voting machine.
Election officials collect the completed paper ballot. They check the voter’s name off the list, and place the ballot in a secure box. At polling sites with electronic voting machines, a computer records two separate pieces of information: the voter’s name and the date they voted, and their vote choices. Separating names and vote choices ensures that voters preferences stay secret. The machine also prints out a receipt with just that first piece of information. Election officials check the voter’s name off the list, and place the receipt in a secure box.
Step one of the process looks pretty much the same, whether you’re voting early or on Election Day. For those voting absentee, it looks a little different.
Mailing ballot votes
In some states, every single registered voter gets an absentee ballot in the mail. In most states, voters have to fill out a request form to get a ballot mailed to them. Once they fill out their ballot, voters can either mail it to their county board of elections, drop it off in person, or place it in an official ballot drop box.
Before they can be counted, absentee ballots have to go through an extra step: verification. Election officialsー always working in those bi-partisan teamsーscan the sealed envelopes into a computer system. Next, they check the signature on the ballot envelope against the signature in the state’s voter registration database. In Missouri, voters also need to get their ballot envelope stamped and signed by a notary public. Other states require a witness’s signature. If an envelope is missing one of these requirements, the whole ballot is invalid.
Most states start this whole verifying process weeks before Election Day. But Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, two crucial battleground states, don’t start verifying mail-in ballots until Election Day. Michigan doesn’t start until the day before. Once the envelopes are verified, election officials unseal them and store the ballots in a secure box until it’s time to start counting.
All paper ballots — from both absentee and in-person voting — are tabulated using a machine. The data is stored on a memory card, and the counted ballots go back in their secure box. Election officials combine the counts from the paper ballots and the electronic voting machines, and the individual polling places report those numbers to the county board of electionsー which reports them to the state board of elections.
At both the county and state level, members of one political party can’t have a majority. On election day, polling places and county boards are continuously counting and reporting new numbers every hour. State boards of elections typically post the counts online after the polls close, and keep updating them as more numbers come in.
News networks make projections based on a certain percentage of votesー and they don’t always get it right. News networks make a lot of money marketing “election night” like it’s the Super Bowl, but there’s something to be said for adjusting our expectations a little — especially during a pandemic.
After all, the law in most states give state boards of election weeks to make sure their vote counts are complete and accurate before certifying them as “official.” Democracy is a marathon, not a sprint. Counting votes takes a lot of time.