1 vote, 2 vote, red vote, blue vote: understanding how general election votes are counted

BLUF: Vote counting processes and deadlines vary by state and county; however, rigorous checks are in place to ensure transparency. Vote counts are unofficial until they have been canvassed, certified, and sent to the U.S. Congress. The Electoral College casts their votes based on certified state results on December 14.

I don’t know if you’ve heard but there was recently a general election. A historic election with more votes cast for a U.S. general election than ever before.

And the people have many questions, including: how are those millions of votes counted?

But here, at THE BABES BLUF, we don’t do partisanship – we do facts.

So let’s start with the kinds of ballots cast in the 2020 general election!

  • Absentee votes: These are votes cast by a voter who is unable to vote in-person at their polling place on Election Day. Typically, absentee votes are for registered voters living abroad (i.e. for work, volunteering, Peace Corps), serving in the military (thank you to our service men and women!), traveling at the time of an election, or are attending school away from their legal residence. These ballots must be both requested and returned by a registered voter by specific dates in advance of the election, and acceptable excuses vary by state.
  • Early votes: These are votes cast in person during a specific voting period by registered voters in advance of Election Day. Not all states have early voting and designated early voting periods vary by state.
  • Mail-in votes: The only real difference between mail-in voting and absentee voting is that absentee ballots are specifically requested when you cannot make it to your polling station on Election day while mail-in voting is usually prompted by state decision to mail ballots to registered voters. Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii are all states which, prior to COVID, chose to conduct their elections through a mail-in process often referred to as all-mail voting. This year, more states opted to include mail-in voting as an option because of the pandemic.
  • Day of votes: These are votes cast at an assigned polling place based on a registered residential address. Day-of polling places can differ from previous elections and often aren’t the same as early polling locations. Some states use paper ballots for day-of voting while others use electronic options like touch screens.
  • Provisional votes: These are votes cast when there is a question about a voter’s eligibility (i.e. you forgot your ID at home, their name isn’t showing up on the polling location roster, etc.). A voter can still cast a provisional ballot but they are held for counting until officials have guaranteed its legitimacy.
  • Online votes: GOTCHA! Not a real thing.

So registered voters cast their ballots and then what?

Well, shockingly, vote counting procedures vary by state and can also differ by county (because why not complicate democracy). However, the general process for counting ballots goes a little something like this:

EARLY VOTES: If ballots were cast early by mail or absentee, some states had the chance to start counting those votes in advance of November 3. Other states weren’t allowed to begin the ballot tally until the morning of the election – some not until after polls closed. The decision of when to count early votes is decided at the state level.

Counting these types of ballots is a lengthy process as one might imagine because they require being physically removed from envelopes (imagine the paper cuts!), ensuring voter registration, and matching signatures to names on file before being finally scanned. This time consuming process is happening at higher rates in 2020 than ever before before of #COVID. Which is why the nonpartisan law and policy institute Brennan Center for Justice stated, “it may take days, if not weeks, to count an expected record number of mail-in votes.” NOTE: All legitimate absentee or mail-in ballots are eventually counted in every general election. Depending on your state, absentee and mail-in ballots must be received or postmarked by Election Day to count.

“If it takes a little longer this year, it’s not because it’s chaos or misconduct, it’s just how we know people are being careful and counting carefully.”

Michael Waldman, president of the nonpartisan law and policy institute Brennan Center for Justice

BONUS: The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has state-by-state breakdowns for your convenience to learn about the mail-in voting policies for the 2020 general election, including when ballot processing and counting begins. Remember – it varies by state. (see a trend, yet?)


  1. Paper ballots cast at polls on Election Day are scanned and entered into a secure box.
  2. They remain in those secure boxes until polls close and are then transported to the county’s board of elections for counting.
  3. Every step of the way there are bipartisan escorts and oversight.
  4. “The board of elections uses memory cards with information from the scanned ballots cast at polling stations across the county to count the votes. This tabulation system is secure and not connected to the internet.” (Learn about this and the life of your ballot in this cool 2018 interactive voting experience)
  5. Once votes are counted at the county level, they are sent (by truck or helicopter – fancy votes) to their respective secretary of state’s office for final announcement and posting of results.
  6. Following Election Day, “canvassing and certification” begins.
  7. The canvass is the official tally of votes for any given election to ensure that every valid ballot cast is included in the election totals – including early, mail-in, absentee, provisional and day-of poll votes. Local elections do their own canvas in the two weeks after an election and then the state does its own canvas and report, as well.
  8. Certification is when a state’s top election official – either the secretary of state or governor – signs off to certify its state’s results. That certified result is given to Congress who certifies the results, too. (so much certifying)
  9. The election night results shown on the news are unofficial. (More on this a little later) In 2020, those results (mostly) did not include on-time absentee ballots and the record number of mail-in votes cast. Those results also did not include provisional ballots which take time to validate.
  10. (Most) states have set deadlines by which they must canvass and certify election results.
  11. Breakdown of battleground deadlines for canvass and certification: Pennsylvania – November 11; Nevada and Wisconsin – December 1; Texas – December 3.

SAFE HARBOR DEADLINE: Either candidate may legally contest county and state election results for a variety of reasons but the very last day for resolution of those contested election results is known as the “safe harbor” deadline. This date is December 8.

FINAL DAYS: The Electoral College then meets in its own state on December 14 to formally cast their electoral votes to the U.S. Congress for the President of the United States.


So glad you asked! Turns out: the United States has never officially had final results on Election Night. And this makes sense because reading how lengthy the vote counting process is above, it has about the same likelihood of happening in one night as Santa delivering gifts to every single home in the world on December 24. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE CHRISTMAS (and Santa) but it ain’t happening.

News outlets call races based on data analysis of partial ballot counts. This comes down to a pretty simple equation: Candidate A is far enough ahead that, given the number of outstanding ballots and the regions those ballots are coming from, Candidate B would realistically be unable to close the gap. What is making that equation tougher to guarantee this year is the unprecedented number of mail-in votes we discussed earlier.

To learn more about how the media decides to call or a project a state’s winner, check out the Associated Press’ (one of the most respected media in journalism) process here.

#DidYouKnow that in early American days, elections could take almost a year because states decided voting periods not the federal government? Yup, that’s right. It is rumored that for the election of 1800, voting began in some states as early as April and continued through October. Recognizing this might become a problem and should be standardized, Congress passed legislation in 1945 to establish a national Election Day on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. (so close to being simple yet so far)

Isn’t there something about Bush v. Gore? Yes, ma’am. The infamous 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore took 35 days. Gore conceded to Bush, on December 13, after the Supreme Court decision to halt the Florida recount.

Speaking of recounts: According to a report released by FairVote, from 2000 to 2015, there were 27 recounts in statewide races across the country. Of those 27, only three resulted in a change of the election result but the average vote change was 282 votes.

Also, because us babes like to know what we need to know, this bad boy has some key dates for milestones between now and January 20 – Inauguration Day.

The 2020 General Election will officially be called after the Electoral College formally cast their votes for President of the United States on December 14 and those results are delivered to officials by December 23.

And that’s all for this one, babes.

No pressure. No bullshit. Just, THE BABES BLUF.

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