Several states have implemented new election administration processes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that could affect how and when ballots are counted. Even under normal circumstances, finalizing federal election results takes days or weeks after election day. Among other steps, state, territorial, and local election officials canvass votes to ensure that ballots are valid and counted accurately. Election observers, audits, and other processes are designed to enhance transparency. This report addresses frequently asked questions on these and related subjects. The discussion emphasizes the period between the time a voter casts a ballot and when election officials certify, or finalize, the results.
The results voters see reported on election night are the culmination of several steps in the election administration process, but are not the end of the process. Each state, territory, and the District of Columbia—which administer federal elections—has its own process for counting votes and declaring winners, but all follow similar steps. Election administrators, political officials, and members of the public continue working after election night to finalize official results. This process typically takes several days or even weeks. State- or territorial-level federal election results in the United States are never official on election night. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the additional time required to process far more mail ballots than most jurisdictions normally receive led to slower ballot processing times in some primary elections, and is expected to do so again in the November general election.
The current environment also creates the potential for foreign or domestic disinformation campaigns designed to undermine confidence in American elections as the normal counting process occurs amid greater public scrutiny than that process typically receives. On September 22, 2020, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) jointly issued a public service announcement noting that “Foreign actors and cybercriminals could exploit the time required to certify and announce elections’ results by disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy.”
These circumstances have generated renewed interest among some Members of Congress, other public officials, and voters about how election officials count votes and determine election results. This report provides brief answers to frequently asked questions about the processes for counting, documenting, and ensuring transparency after votes are cast. It addresses federal elections, although the discussion herein also generally applies to elections for state or local offices.
Professional election administrators manage most or all of the ballot-counting process. Members of the public, the media, or credentialed observers typically monitor most or all of the ballot counting process. Specific practices and requirements vary by jurisdiction. Election officials develop standard practices to document the chain of custody for ballots, ensure transparency, and generate accurate results.
“Federal Election Results: Frequently Asked Questions,” CRS Report R46565, October 8, 2020 (20-page PDF)
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