Election Day 2016: How Are Votes Counted?

people voting for the 2016 presidential elections on November 8
MILWAUKEE, WI - NOVEMBER 8: Voters cast their ballot in the national election at Cannon Pavilion on November 8, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Americans are headed to the polls to vote for either Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump or Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and other members of Congress. (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images) (Image credit: Darren Hauck / Stringer)

The candidates have been chosen, you've filled in the circles and dropped the envelope in the mailbox or ballot box, and you are now one of the millions of Americans who have cast a vote for president.

But from those millions of single votes, how do election officials determine who will be the next president of the United States of America?

It turns out, there may be nearly as many ways to count votes as there are voting precincts — and there are 8,000 precincts, said Edward Foley, an election expert at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University.  [Election Day 2016: A Guide to the When, Why, What and How]

"It's important to stress just how much variation there is," Foley told Live Science.

However, despite the many variations, one commonality is that the vote count is incredibly meticulous and has multiple layers of oversight, said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project.

The process of counting votes is a Herculean effort that may involve about 1 million people across the country, Stewart said. About 126 million Americans voted in the 2012 election, according to estimates by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Based on that voter turnout, counting the vote requires one person involved in the vote count for every 100 to 150 voters.

People are also voting in myriad ways. The 100,000 polling places feed into 8,000 precincts, but many states increasingly allow mail-in and absentee ballots that are sent directly to the local election office or county courthouse, while still others allow people to drop their mail-in ballot at polling places.

Tabulating the vote

In most places, the voting process looks a little like this: People go to their designated polling place, their name is checked off the voter rolls and they vote, either with a paper ballot that is optically scanned by a machine, an electronic voting machine or, very rarely, a paper ballot that is hand-read, Foley said. [Clinton or Trump for President: What Happens If the Election Is a Tie?]  

In the case of optically scanned ballots, once voting for the day is done, a poll worker pushes a little button on a computer that automatically tabulates the votes. Then, the machine will print out a grocery-receipt-like record with the vote tally, which is usually taped to the door of the polling place, Stewart said. Several copies of this printout are generated, and those copies, along with a computer card that stores the results, are bundled together and immediately sent to one of the central counting offices, which may be either a dedicated elections department or the county courthouse, Stewart said. (Some counties take uncounted ballots directly from the polling place to have them read by an optical scanner in the county courthouse, Stewart added.)

Once these memory cards from all of the polling places are received by the central office, "they're popped into a computer much like you would pop a USB thumb drive into a computer," Stewart said. This computer then tallies all of the results and begins to generate a preliminary vote-count report, Stewart said.

Then, this preliminary vote count can be conveyed in a number of ways. In some places, a "stringer" for the Associated Press (AP) will sit there and call in the results to the central AP call center, Stewart said. In other places, the results will be pushed via phone or internet to state officials, who will report the results.

To prevent an election from being "hacked," some states even have their own separate, secure wires for transmitting election results between the county and the state, Foley said.

Throughout this process, there are multiple safeguards to ensure the vote remains secure.

"The laws require representatives from the various parties and then the county election board to be present" during vote tallies, Stewart said.

In some places, the computer that is tabulating the vote at the county level will be placed in a locked room with a big picture window, so that observers can see — but not tamper with — the results, Stewart said.

Mail-in and absentee ballots

Mail-in and absentee ballots are typically sent directly to the central county courthouse or elections department, where they are collected. In the best-case scenarios, the mail-in ballot will be in two envelopes: an inner, plain envelope; and an outer one with a signature line, Stewart said.

At the elections department, officials will open the outer envelopes and ensure that the signature matches with the one on file, and then place the sealed, plain envelopes in a pile to be counted by an optical-scan reader, which is used for the entire county, Stewart said. (Astronauts, meanwhile, have a whole separate procedure for casting their ballots from space.)  

Official results

The results coming from the state- or county-level precincts on election night are not the official results, Foley said. That count begins well after the polls have closed, typically the following day, he said. [How Does the Electoral College Work?]

"There's a certification process, called canvassing, of the returns, to double-check and triple-check their accuracy," Foley said.

For instance, in the official vote tally, counters will make sure that the number of ballots given out is equal to or greater than the number of votes tallied, Stewart said.

"It really is accounting. I liken it to double-entry bookkeeping — the sum across the rows has to equal the sum across the columns," Stewart said.

Once all of the vote numbers have been reconciled, the county board certifies the election and generates a report with the official vote count.

Ensuring free and fair elections

Numerous safeguards prevent fraud and voter suppression throughout the voting process. For instance, poll workers are sometimes overseen by election officials, to make sure they are not depriving anyone of a fair vote or allowing people who are not on the rolls to cast their ballots, Stewart said.

The voting lists are public record, and members of each campaign are invited to observe the voters being checked off the lists to ensure a fair process, he said.

"At a minimum, there's a right of the candidates and anyone with a question of the ballot to observe at every point," Stewart said.

Observers are also on guard to prevent voter intimidation. For instance, the Department of Justice sends attorneys from its Civil Rights Division to observe 28 precincts and ensure they are complying with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, according to a DOJ statement.

In addition, the claims of election rigging have spurred the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to deploy hundreds of international monitors to observe the election. Because many international observers are not allowed into polling places, these monitors may go to election offices, observe the vote counts and ensure the process is free from tampering, Stewart said.

Although most elements of the voting process are tightly regulated and monitored, there have been occasional cases of people voting multiple times or trying to stuff the ballot box (literally), but these cases are almost always not serious enough to trigger a new vote, Stewart said. However, the weakest link in the security of voting is the mail-in or absentee ballots, he said.

"There isn't evidence of a widespread problem, but inevitably, when there are stories of voter fraud, they show up in mail balloting and, in particular, in absentee balloting," Stewart said. "It is rare for there to be a chain of custody of mail ballots."

For instance, once a ballot is mailed to a person, it's out of that tightly controlled environment, Stewart said.

"The ballot gets sent to you," Stewart said. "Do you actually get it? Once you get it, do you or a family member fill it out?"

Original article on Live Science.

Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.