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.