Making Sense of the Post-Election Process

Calendar showing Nov. 4 accompanied by small text that says "EXPLAINER" and large text that says “Post-Election Key Terms"

As we enter the post-election period, you may hear certain terms being referenced that relate to the processing and counting of ballots. Below is a list of post-election terms and definitions in the context of the 2020 election. We hope this will serve as a useful tool as you follow along with our voting rights work after Nov. 3.

Here are the key terms you should know:

  • Counting Ballots: The initial counting of the ballots that starts before Election Day (in some states) and continues on election night (in all states). This includes counting in-person, absentee, and early voting ballots. 
  • Informal Results: The election results announced on election night and in the days immediately following Election Day. 
  • Certified Results: The election results as certified by local and state election officials. 
  • Recounting: The re-examination and re-tabulation of the ballots to confirm the certified results are accurate.
  • Final Results: The count of ballots that is confirmed at the conclusion of the certification process.
  • Contesting Results: Where a candidate refuses to accept the final results and initiates a contest to the validity of the election and recount. 
  • Vote Margin: The percentage difference between the share of votes counted for the leading candidate and the share of votes cast for the second-place candidate. 
  • Vote Differential: The raw vote total difference between the number of votes counted for the leading candidate and the number of votes counted for the second-place candidate.
  • The Count: The precise number of votes for each candidate in a given race based on a unified ballot counting process that tracks all counted and cast-but-yet-to-be-counted ballots.   
  • The Canvass: The process where local election officials confirm results by reviewing the Informal Results reported on election night and in the days following Election Day. Election officials will also add any outstanding ballots that have been deemed eligible for counting during the canvass (e.g. provisional ballots where voters confirmed their eligibility or mail-in ballots that arrived after Election Day but by the state deadline). The timing of the canvass varies by state.
  • Recount: The process where ballots are re-tabulated to confirm the certified results. Depending on state law, recounts may be: (i) requested by candidates, voters or election officials; (ii) ordered pursuant to litigation or (iii) automatic if the certified results are within a certain vote margin. How the ballots will be recounted (by hand or by machine) may be determined by litigation or as set forth in state law.
  • Contest: A legal proceeding in state court or a legislative chamber where a candidate (or other individual) challenges the validity of the election. Contest procedures are determined by state law.