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What happens immediately after Election Day is as important to the democratic process as the campaigns that come just before.
So it’s worth examining how the votes are counted, validated and certified, particularly in this time when so many Americans, mostly Republican, are questioning the integrity of the US system.
The most important thing to remember for November 9, the day after Election Day, is to be ready for the likelihood that the broad outcome – which party will control the House and Senate – may not be known for days or weeks.
CNN did not project that Joe Biden would win the 2020 presidential election until four days after Election Day.
It was not clear Democrats would control the Senate until two months later, on January 6, 2021, when Jon Ossoff was projected to win the second of two runoff elections in Georgia.
There’s no presidential race this year, but there is another Senate race in Georgia. And if neither Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock nor his GOP challenger Herschel Walker gets more than 50% of the vote, there will be another runoff on December 6.
CNN’s Harry Enten explores multiple scenarios, like the one above where the Georgia runoff determines the Senate, the converse possibility that Senate control is projected very early and also the long shot that Alaska’s and Maine’s ranked-choice voting system means we don’t know who will control the House for weeks after Election Day. Read his report.
One thing Enten does not explore is the possibility that independent Evan McMullin, who has said he will caucus with neither party, wins the Senate seat in Utah.
These things take time not because of any widespread fraud or conspiracy. Rather, it’s partially because a large portion of US voters are again casting their votes early and by mail – about 25 million Americans and counting have already voted, according to CNN’s tabulations of data from election officials, Edison Research and Catalist.
While that’s far fewer pre-election votes than two years ago and the counting of these votes should go quicker in most states than it did in 2020, that doesn’t mean it will be instantaneous.
Back in 2020, multiple states had large portions of the vote uncounted as of noon the day after Election Day. That delay in 2020 was partially due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but it’s also because some states just take longer. California conducts elections mostly by mail and routinely has more than 30% of its vote uncounted by the next day.
If the race to control the House is close and certain California races are close, it’s entirely possible those races will need to play out to determine control.
It’s also true that in many key states, Democrats are again taking more advantage of early voting and vote by mail, according to data from Catalist, a company that provides data, analytics and other services to Democrats, academics and nonprofit issue-advocacy organizations and is giving insights into who is voting.
In places where close statewide races are expected – like Pennsylvania – Democrats have turned in more early ballots than Republicans in data available so far. Plus, the Keystone State doesn’t allow mail ballot processing until Election Day, which means the process could take time and momentum could shift as votes are counted (just like we saw in 2020).
Canvassing is the tabulation of votes, and it occurs at both the local and state level. Election results are not actually official for some time after Election Day as the canvassing takes place.
While there is a movement among some Republicans to return to the dark ages of hand counting ballots, experts pretty much universally agree that would not work on a large scale in a country of more than 330 million people.
Research has shown electronic scanning is somewhat more accurate than hand counting. There will be an experiment with hand counting in one rural Nevada county this year, though it has run into some recent legal hurdles. Read more on that from CNN’s Fredreka Schouten.
Voting varies by state and location, but there are safeguards in place everywhere to guarantee the accuracy of machine tabulated votes. These include audits of machines and the existence of paper ballots for the vast majority of voters to facilitate recounts.
The liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice has a good roundup of the general process for authenticating mail-in ballots, how votes are counted – usually by scanning machines – and how audits and recounts are undertaken. Many states also certify the results after the canvass. This process also varies.
The process of certifying election results usually starts at the local level, when votes are canvassed in the days following Election Day.
A separate canvass occurs at the state level in the days and weeks following those local tabulations.
The rules for local officials to canvass results and report them to state governments vary by state.
In most states, local officials are required to certify their election results within two weeks, but some states allow for longer periods, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, or NCSL.
In the key race states of Michigan, Ohio and Arizona, local officials have up to three weeks to certify results. In California and Colorado, they have 22 days or more.
Note: NCSL has a lot more information on the deadlines in each state. The National Association of Secretaries of State also keeps a database.
After local officials tabulate results, state officials are required to canvass the results at some point after Election Day in order to officially validate them. The process should be completed in nearly every state within a month of Election Day.
This certification process usually does not get much attention, but in this time when Republicans in particular are questioning the integrity of US elections and many still refuse to accept the results of the last election, look for more scrutiny.
Rules for recounts also vary, including who pays for them. Some states have automatic recounts in the event of a close result (often 0.5%), and in some states candidates have the option to request a recount.
Recounts almost never result in a different winner. The organization FairVote found three instances of a recount overturning the outcome of a race in a review of 5,778 statewide elections between 2000 and 2019. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t an important check on the system.
If there are lawsuits (spoiler alert: there will be lawsuits) about a given race or the returns in a specific county that gain traction after Election Day, some of these canvass dates can slip.
That’s the case in Arizona, where the statewide canvass is supposed to occur on the fourth Monday following the election, according to NCSL, but where state law allows a delay of up to 30 days if a county needs longer.
In Pennsylvania, site of many lawsuits in 2020, there is no specified date for a statewide canvass. The process could, theoretically, drag on for some time if votes are close.
Americans might, again, need to be patient and wait to figure out what happened after they voted on Election Day.