After the Voting Ends: Postelection Processes
If you’re reading this, you know that the close of the polls is not the end of an election. So much work remains even after the last ballot is cast. Local election officials must count ballots, process provisional ballots (and any absentee/mail ballots that arrive after Election Day, if allowed by state law) and prepare results for the state to eventually certify. Those steps take time, often weeks, and are essential to each and every election.
So, there’s no time like the present—one day before Election Day—to dive in to the four main postelection actions: canvassing the vote, certifying results, determining voter intent and managing contested elections.
We provide a summary of each process below, but if you want to get in the weeds, visit our new resource, After the Voting Ends: The Steps to Complete an Election. There, you can find additional information, including 50-state tables, links to state election calendar websites and other resources. (Note: This webpage is new, so feel free to fact check your state and send us any corrections. We’re always grateful to our eagle-eyed readers.)
Canvassing the Vote
According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a canvass refers to the “compilation of election returns and validation of the outcome [of the election] that forms the basis of the official results by political subdivision.” In lay terms, the canvass is the counting of election returns at the local or state level—it also inspired the name of this newsletter!
State law usually defines in statute when the canvass must be completed. Local canvass dates range from the day after the election in Alaska to 28 days after the election for presidential electors or 30 days after the election for all other offices in California.
State canvass dates range from the Friday after the election in Oklahoma (provided no contest has been filed) to the second Tuesday in December in Missouri for offices other than presidential electors.
For statutory rules that determine local and state canvass dates in each state, visit the Canvass Deadlines tab on After the Voting Ends: The Steps to Complete an Election.
Certifying the Results
The certification of election results is a review done by someone other than the election officials themselves, and it gives assurance that the election results are correct. Certification can be done at the local level but is always done at the state level by the chief election official of the state, the state board of elections or some other entity.
County and local certification deadlines range from one week after Election Day in Maine to the fourth week after Election Day in West Virginia. Most states, however, must certify results somewhere in between: 21 states certify results during the second week after Election Day, and 13 do so during the third week.
State certification deadlines also vary widely. Thirty-three states have statutory language such as “not later than,” “by” or “within” that specifies the deadline by which state canvasses and/or certifications must be completed. Another four states—Hawaii, Idaho, Massachusetts and Minnesota—have similar language pertaining only to the canvass/certification deadline for presidential electors. In the remaining 17 states, such as Delaware and Utah, the language regarding the completion of the state canvass/certification is vague, open to interpretation, or not specified.
In addition, eight states have different certification deadlines for presidential electors than for other offices. In Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, provisions requiring that certification, recounts and/or contests related to presidential elections be completed by the “safe harbor” deadline specified in 3 U.S.C. §5. In elections for all other offices in all other states, recounts and contest proceedings may extend beyond canvass completion and certification deadlines.
In any given year, the calendar date can shift based on weekends and holidays. For the calendar date, please see each state’s website, which you can find on the State Election Calendar Websites tab on After the Voting Ends: The Steps to Complete an Election.
By definition, all eligible ballots should be counted in an election. And yet, sometimes there are questions about the eligibility of a ballot. (Eligibility of a ballot, of course, is different than eligibility of the voter. For in-person voting, voter eligibility is determined at voter check-in, and for absentee/mail voting, voter eligibility is determined by the information, or affidavit, provided on the outside of the return envelope.)
If a ballot itself is questionable—it has stray marks, the oval isn’t fully colored in, the voter has scratched out and written “this one” with an arrow—election officials must decide whether to count it. (The images to the right are both from Colorado's Voter Intent guide.) Some states don’t count a ballot if it is not completed properly; others have statutes that say that, if the voter’s intent can be understood, the ballot can be counted. These are known as “voter intent laws” and are applicable to paper ballots only; electronic voting systems function differently.
For more on voter intent laws in each state, see the Voter Intent Laws tab on After the Voting Ends: The Steps to Complete an Election.
When a candidate or campaign is not satisfied that an election was conducted correctly, they can contest the outcome. In other words, they can sue. States can and mostly do specify a date or deadline by which the contest must be initiated. Most states also provide a date when the contest must be concluded. This is to ensure a speedy resolution so that the winner can be sworn in and governance is not disrupted by a lengthy judicial process. In general, the rules governing these processes are laid out not just in state statutes, but in regulations and guidelines as well.
- Forty-two states have statutes pertaining to election contests. Those that don’t are Maine, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
- Fourteen states provide a deadline for the completion of a contest for some elected offices.
- In Connecticut, completion deadlines differ for federal offices and other offices.
- In five states (Indiana, Iowa, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia), a completion deadline is specified for contests relating to presidential electors, but not for any other office. In most of these five states, the deadline to decide a contest is tied to Title 3, Chapter 1 of the United States Code and its “safe harbor” deadline for states to resolve disputed presidential elections (by the time electors vote, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December). In Tennessee, contests for presidential elector must be decided before the last day of November.
For each state’s deadlines for election contests, visit the Contested Election Deadlines tab on After the Voting Ends: The Steps to Complete an Election.
From the Chair
This month, we spoke with Iowa Senator Roby Smith (R), who represents District 47 in eastern Iowa. He was first elected to the Senate in 2010.
How did you get selected to chair the Senate Committee on State Government?
I had served on the state government committee for the majority of my time in the Senate. After being in the minority for six years, the Senate leader chose me to chair the committee when we took the majority.
I think it’s the most interesting committee in the capitol—we cover election law, gaming, alcohol, scope of medical practice, open records laws and more. If it happens in Iowa, it happens in the state government committee.
A few years ago, you wrote a bill that would allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will be 18 by the general election. Can you tell us about that bill and why it was important to you?
It just makes sense that if you can vote for the winner of a race in the general election, you should be able to choose who will run in that race by voting in the primary. And really, voters need to be 17 years and 7 months because our primary is in June.
This idea was integrated into a larger voter ID bill that was passed in 2017. There were a number of election things in that bill that were very good. The voter ID policy requires people to show their license or non-operating permit. For people who don’t have a license, we mail them a voter PIN card, which they can bring and show as ID. And when voters request an absentee ballot, they put their driver’s license number or voter PIN on the absentee ballot request form—it’s a simple step so we can verify who they are.
Another thing we did in that bill: We raised the number of people who can observe absentee ballot counting. It used to be that two people from each political party could come in and observe. (You can have zero—it’s not required.) Two seemed low, so we raised the number to five, and that will help this year when there’s a lot of absentee ballots being counted.
Drop boxes have been a big issue around the nation. Is it correct that Iowa’s secretary of state has said that counties cannot use drop boxes? What are your thoughts on this issue?
The law is written so that there are four ways for someone to return ballot—you can mail it, drop it off at the auditor’s office, or someone can mail it or drop it off at the auditor’s office for you. That’s what is in the code, so the secretary of state is following Iowa’s law.
For this special time, an agreement was reached to allow each auditor’s office to have a secure, locked no-contact ballot return box, with video surveillance, on the county property. I think that’s a great way to follow the law, but also give someone the opportunity to drop off a ballot.
What are your committee’s other major election priorities?
The faithful elector pledge. This isn’t the National Popular Vote—this is only for Iowa. Electors pledge to vote for their party’s presidential nominee if that nominee wins the popular vote in Iowa, or they will be replaced with elected alternates. Our electors’ votes need to mirror the way Iowans vote.
Another priority is mandatory election audits. All 99 counties in Iowa must do a hand recount of a precinct and match it up to the machine’s tabulation. That adds security and reassures the public that when the machine counts, it’s accurate.
Lastly, we started curbside voting in 2016 for people who are disabled. They can pull up, call the polling site, and the worker will bring out the ballot. We’re expanding it this year, so if someone has COVID-19 concerns, they can vote curbside.
What are you most proud of in terms of elections in Iowa?
It’s easy to vote, but hard to cheat. We have clear voter ID laws for in-person voting and absentee voting, so people have faith in the integrity and security of our elections.
We’re also the first in the nation to caucus, so we get to see lots of candidates. People will ask who are you going to vote for in the caucus, and the joke we like to use is, “I don’t know—I have to meet all the candidates three times each before I decide.” We do a good service for the country by vetting candidates early.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Staying Calm this Election Season
NCSL’s own Wendy Underhill, director of the Elections and Redistricting Program, urges calm this election season in a brand-new op-ed for the Cook Political Report. Election Day is the culmination of this country’s bipartisan spirit—virtually everything in an election is done in teams comprised of both parties—and months, if not years, of detailed preparation by election policymakers and administrators. Wendy’s mantra? “We can stay calm and trust the process.” The National Association of State Election Directors and National Association of Secretaries of State think the same thing.
Six Policy Decision Points on Absentee/Mail Voting
NCSL's new LegisBrief explores six distinct policy decision points that can affect how smoothly a large volume of absentee/mail voting can be processed―application deadlines, drop boxes, ballot receipt and postmark deadlines, ballot processing and signature cure periods.
Voter Communications Report
The USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, through its Voter Communication Task Force, has released a new Voter Communications Report. The report is intended to be a useful resource for any company, NGO, association or media outlet about how to communicate reliable voter information to registered voters, and why communicating this information is particularly important this year. NCSL’s State Legislatures magazine also has a new piece on the report.
Designing Healthy Polling Places
A team of designers from Stanford have used “human-centered design to contribute to protecting voter participation in the fall 2020 election.” Funded through the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, the new resource focuses on how election administrators can reduce health risks and stress associated with voting. Check out the tools and videos from election experts explaining various aspects of the election process.
Monthly Cybersecurity Update
U.S. intelligence agencies have informed the public that they believe Iran is responsible for a number of threatening emails sent to voters in multiple states. Officials urged voters to remain confident that their votes are secure, and that hostile actors will be held accountable for interfering in U.S. elections. The officials also indicated that they believe Iran and Russia have obtained voter registration data, although it is unclear if the information was public or obtained in a hack.
International Election Observers Limited by COVID-19
International election observers visiting the U.S. to survey our elections will be severely limited by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has sent observers to the U.S. for the past 20 years. The OSCE recommended that 500 observers be sent for the 2020 election, but only 30 observers have been deployed due to complications from the pandemic.
New Report on Election Results Questions
The Congressional Research Service issued a new report on frequently asked questions regarding election results. Responding to concerns about how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect elections, this new resource seeks to educate readers about the time period between when voters cast their ballots and election officials certify, or finalize, results. While all states have somewhat similar processes, each has their own steps for counting votes and declaring winners.
2020 Ballot Measures
Our colleague Amanda Zoch, an expert on ballot measures, recently sat down with Politico for a fascinating look at issues that voters will weigh in on in 2020. While much of the focus this year has been on the candidates, many important questions will be answered by voters this year, including abortion rights and legalized marijuana. On the election front, voters will decide whether to adopt ranked choice voting, allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries and join the National Popular Vote Compact.
Atlanta Hawks Partner with Fulton County for Voting Efforts
The NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, along with Fulton County, have partnered to transform Atlanta’s State Farm Arena into Georgia’s largest polling place in history. All registered voters in the county can use the site, which will be staffed by hundreds of arena workers. More than 1500 complimentary parking spots will be available, and voters will even receive a special “I Voted” sticker. Atlanta joins at least 18 other cities in using NBA arenas as polling places.
From the NCSL Elections Team
Election Day will soon arrive following an unusual year in many ways. NCSL will be ready to provide coverage on election night and beyond as we track legislative chambers across the country through our State Election 2020 resources.
—Wendy Underhill, Brian Hinkle and Mandy Zoch