Here’s What To Expect on Election Night…and After

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Let’s address the question on everyone’s mind right now: Will we know the final results on election night? The answer is no — and we never have.

Americans have become accustomed to going to bed on election night and waking up the next morning knowing who wins because the media has been able to make accurate projections on election outcomes because they’ve had enough information to do so. But newsrooms never report final results on election night. The election night “results” we all think of are actually unofficial results (explained more below). They’re not final. 

This year, election night coverage will inevitably be different because the circumstances are different. Between a record number of mail-in ballots and staggered dates of when states can even begin counting ballots, newsrooms are unable to rely on the same types of outcome modeling they’ve used in previous elections.

The longer-than-usual wait times for results is just democracy at work.

Here is what you should know about the totals being reported on election night and what’s ahead.

On election night, you should expect to see unofficial results.

Starting on election night, election officials and media outlets will be reporting the unofficial results. In every state, the unofficial results reported on election night will include the count of most ballots that were cast in person on Election Day. In some states, the unofficial results on election night will also include some or all of the absentee ballots and in-person early voting ballots. It’s normal in many states to continue counting ballots and reporting unofficial results in the days after Election Day, especially in high-turnout elections.

The road to finalizing the results begins with the canvass.

The next step in counting every vote is “the canvass.” This happens in every state, but the timing can vary from the morning after Election Day to several weeks later depending on state law. The canvass takes place after every election, not just federal or presidential elections. It’s a transparent process that is open to campaign observers and members of the media.

The canvass is the process where local election officials confirm results by reviewing and finalizing the unofficial results reported on election night.

The canvass has two main functions:

  1. During the canvass, election officials will count any outstanding ballots that have been deemed eligible for counting after Election Day. For example, as voters successfully cure their provisional ballots and absentee ballots by the deadline, those ballots will be added to the count.
  2. During the canvass, election officials will correct any inadvertent errors that may have occurred while reporting the informal results on election night. This is done by examining the documentation from each precinct to be sure the results on the precinct documents match the informal results that were released to the public. It is common to find and correct errors during this process. For example, the canvass may discover that the final print out from a precinct’s ballot counter shows Candidate A received 132 votes, but the informal results for that precinct were written down as 123 votes. The canvass corrects this discrepancy so that Candidate A’s vote total in the certified results correctly reflects the 132 votes they actually received.

Once the canvass is complete, it’s time to certify.

When the canvass is complete, election officials will release the certified results. At this point, certain races may proceed to a recount.

Keep this process in mind on election night and in the days after. Remind your friends, family, neighbors and coworkers of the process too.

And remember: Democracy Docket will continue to monitor until every last lawful ballot is counted. Be sure to follow us on TwitterInstagram and Facebook to stay up to date on all things post election.