This story is part of , CNET’s coverage of the run-up to voting in November.
Early voting is at record levels this year as Americans seek to avoid crowds at polling places because of the . More than 71 million votes have already been cast, setting the stage for a marathon counting process that could go on for days or weeks after the Nov. 3 election.
Though the US has no national criteria for how voting is conducted, counting the ballots is remarkably consistent across the country’s roughly 3,200 counties. Except in a handful of unusual cases, vote counting is conducted by machine, speeding the process of tallying the expected 150 million or more ballots that’ll be cast in the contest between Republican President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.
In some counties, voters fill out a paper ballot, which is then fed into an optical scanner that records the choices. In others, voters use a touchscreen device that records the votes digitally. In most states, but not all, those touchscreen devices create a paper record of the choices. (The devices aren’t connected to the internet.)
All the votes have to be tallied, a process that can become more complex as mail-in, provisional and overseas ballots are added to the count. Here’s how it happens:
When does the counting start for in-person voting? Do poll workers wait until the end of the day? Or can they get a head start on the count?
When you vote in person on Election Day, counting the votes doesn’t start until the polls have closed.
Once polling places have closed, the votes for each machine are tabulated — whether it’s an optical scanner, a touchscreen device or a lever-activated machine. A poll worker prints out the vote count, which often is long enough to challenge a CVS receipt.
The total from each machine is then reported to county officials, but that happens differently depending on county and state rules. Sometimes the printed record, as well as a smart card or thumb drive containing information from the polling station’s machines, is delivered directly to county officials on election night. In other instances, the count from the polling stations is either phoned in or transmitted by a secure internet connection.
Once the count is transmitted to county officials, a preliminary vote count is generated and shared with state officials and the media. News organizations use these counts to forecast winners. It’s important to understand that these are preliminary counts. The election results still have to be verified for the count to be considered official.
What do you mean verified? What does that involve?
Data from the actual voting machines must be gathered and examined. The votes will be tallied again by election officials. These results will be double- and triple-checked. Mail-in ballots and provisional ballots will also be examined. If verified, they’ll be added to the count.
What about mail-in, absentee and provisional ballots? How are they counted?
All these ballots are counted pretty much like any paper ballot is counted, though they have to be confirmed before they’re fed into the optical scanner. Depending on the state, the process to count mail-in ballots can be started before Election Day. But in some states, the process must start on Election Day.
Mail-in ballots, which some states offer to all voters, can be sent to officials through the postal service. Some states allow voters to drop off ballots at secure boxes. Because of the pandemic, many states that had previously limited mail-in or absentee voting to voters who’d qualified under certain circumstances have now opened up the option to anyone.
As a result, the terms absentee voting and mail-in voting are now being used interchangeably. Some election officials have started using the term “mail-in ballots” or “vote by mail” because they’re expanding absentee ballot eligibility during the pandemic to include people who aren’t actually absent from their precinct at the time of voting.
To start the process of counting mail-in ballots, election officials match the signatures on the ballot with signatures on record to determine whether a voter is registered. Some states allow officials to start the process of confirming the eligibility of those ballots ahead of Election Day. Other states require officials to wait until Election Day to process those ballots. Nearly 48 million mail-in votes have already been cast this year.
Once the ballots have been verified, they go into the scanner like any other.
Provisional ballots are given to voters at polling stations who have difficulty verifying they’re registered to vote. This might happen if people show up to the wrong polling place or in some states if they forget their ID. Those ballots are separated from other ballots and aren’t counted until the voter’s eligibility is confirmed. These ballots are tallied after the polling station closes.
I voted by mail. How do I know if my mail ballot arrived?
Most states allow you to track your ballot. You can check with your state’s secretary of state to find out how or if your mail-in ballot can be tracked.
Who gives the official results?
Early results usually come after the polls close, but official results aren’t announced until after a certification process called canvassing. This process ensures that every ballot cast is accounted for and that each valid vote is included in the official results of the election.
The process involves double- and triple-checking tallies for accuracy. It also involves a bit of accounting to make sure the number of ballots that were given out to voters and returned to election officials matches the number of votes recorded. And it entails resolving discrepancies, correcting errors and taking any remedial actions necessary to ensure completeness and accuracy before certifying the election.
Once all that’s been completed, a county board of elections certifies the election and generates an official vote count.
How long does this take?
Each state has its own timeline for canvassing following a general election. The process usually concludes later in November, but it can extend to December in some states.
Less than a week before this year’s election, early voting and mail-in voting tallies have already exceeded half the number of votes that were counted during the entire 2016 presidential election. This flood of ballots, many of which need to be handled manually, could make certifying the results take longer this year.
But the biggest issue that could prolong the vote is the threat of legal challenges in some states that could stop or delay counting.
“Even with the volume of mail-in votes, the deadlines are quite realistic for any normal election management issues that may arise,” said Steven Huefner, a professor at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. “But if there is some kind of court fight, and the courts aren’t able to resolve it quickly enough, that could cause some serious problems.”
Is there a deadline by which all the states need to certify the election?
Yes. It’s Dec. 8.
Why Dec. 8?
If you’re an American, you may recall from your high school civics class that voters in the US don’t vote directly for president and vice president. They vote for electors who will cast votes. This process necessitates a deadline by which states must decide which electors they send to vote in the national election.
States are supposed to appoint presidential electors to the electoral college by Dec. 8, though that can be extended to Dec. 14, which is when electors meet in state capitals to cast their votes. Those votes and the certificates from the election from each state are counted by Congress on Jan. 6.
Could the heavy use of mail-in ballots affect when we know the projected winners?
Yes. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, we didn’t get official results until weeks after the election. The reliance on mail-in ballots, as well as early voting, will likely complicate the count this year.
This process is laborious and time-consuming. Election officials have to verify that the ballots are from registered voters. Then they must verify that each ballot came from the person it purportedly came from. In cases where ballots are damaged or unreadable by scanners, election officials may need to interpret ballots to ensure all votes are counted.
Every verified ballot will be counted, regardless of how it was cast.
“There is often this notion that if it’s not a close race that officials stop counting the eligible absentee or provisional ballots,” Heufner said. “But that’s not true. Election officials always process every single vote that is eligible for counting.”
Twenty-seven states require mail-in and absentee ballots to be received on or before Election Day, according to the Associated Press. Depending on the state, mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day can arrive after Nov. 3 and will still be counted. For instance, Washington state’s deadline for the receipt of mail-in ballots is Nov. 23.
With that in mind, determining the projected winner could be difficult. An official count could take weeks.