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The Voting Is Over. What Happens Next?

Post-election steps range from counting ballots to potential court cases.

By Camilla Rodriguez Guzman and Katie King  |  April 25, 2024

The voters’ job ends when they cast their ballots on Election Day, but the election itself is far from over. Local and state election officials and canvassing boards count and report votes, certify results, conduct post-election audits and sometimes conduct recounts and follow-up contests.

NCSL and U.S. Election Assistance Commissioner Donald Palmer discussed the nuances of these processes during the recent webinar “After the Voting Is Over: Counting, Results Reporting, Recounts (and More).

Election Webinar Series

“After the Voting Is Over” was the second of four election policy webinars NCSL is hosting with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The next webinar, “Focus on the Voters,” with EAC Commissioner Thomas Hicks, is Friday, May 10, at 2 p.m. ET. Register here.


Ballots from polling places are often counted on Election Day, while absentee and mail ballots, early in-person ballots, and military and overseas ballots may be received in the weeks leading up to and after an election. “State laws determine when absentee ballots must be received and when they are counted,” Palmer says.

Tabulation is done on machines that are rigorously vetted by states and often are certified to voluntary standards approved by the EAC. “Standards are developed with election officials from across the country over a course of years,” Palmer says. “We put an ‘EAC certified’ sticker on each machine that goes through this process and meets the voluntary standards that we develop for the country.”

Reporting of Results

“States need to ask themselves, as a policy decision, ‘Do we want absentee ballots counts to be released with the first drop of results?’” Palmer says.

The initial results are unofficial and typically include only ballots that election officials have counted to that point. Election officials continue to count ballots on election night and into the following days to ensure every eligible vote is counted. Preprocessing of absentee and early in-person votes can allow the results of this method of voting to be released sooner.

“I caution folks when you hear about election night projections, when they make a call, they can be incorrect. They’re not official and they’re not truly from election offices,” Palmer says.

Canvassing and Certification

Before results are official, election officials are busy confirming there were no errors and reconciling any discrepancies, processes known as canvassing and certification.

The canvass is the final count of all valid ballots cast in an election. Terminology and processes vary, but in general, local election officials present results to a local bipartisan canvassing board or other entity to review and certify local races. “The board can be lawyers, judges or other people who are prominent in the community that oversee the process in which the administrator is accountable to,” Palmer says. “They help resolve issues.”

Next comes state certification, the final step for releasing official results: Election officials and the board of canvassers attest that tabulation and canvassing of the election are complete and accurate.

As the former secretary of the Virginia Board of Elections and Florida’s former director of elections, Palmer recalls, “The local board and the election officials will present their results to the state, and we at the state review them for discrepancies. This process was done on a spreadsheet available to the public.”


Post-election audits serve as a safeguard to ensure that elections are fair and transparent. “Audits take place to provide confidence from a statistical manner that everything was done in complete,” Palmer says. Forty-eight states and Washington, D.C., require some form of post-election audit, with traditional, risk-limiting, procedural or other methods.

Recounts and Contests

Recounts are rare and typically occur only when there is a narrow margin in races or candidates request them. Across 23 states and Washington, D.C., recounts are automatically triggered if the results fall within a specified margin.

During the recount process, “Some ballots will need to be looked at to see what the voter intended to vote. If a voter circled the candidates instead of filling in the bubble, the vote might not count unless it is a close race,” Palmer says. “Two people from different parties will look at your ballot and determine if the voter intent is clear.”

Palmer says recounts rarely change results. He cites a 2018 Florida election in which three statewide races were within a 10,000-vote margin; recounts yielded no change in results.

“If there is evidence of voter fraud, irregularities or misconduct, you can take this to court but sometimes it’s a high bar to get into court and overturn an election,” Palmer says.

Deadlines govern election contests, just as they do all other post-election steps. “The contest deadlines are strictly in code, and they are different in states, but contests have to be brought fairly quickly,” he says.

Together, recounts and election contests help maintain public trust in the democratic system and make sure that all eligible votes are counted.

For more on post-election processes, see these NCSL and Election Assistance Commission resources:

Camilla Rodriguez Guzman is a policy analyst in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

Katie King is a policy associate in the Elections and Redistricting Program.

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