GUEST POST: Sean Greene – “Election Night Results: The First, not Final, Draft”

[Photo credit: Alexander Prosser-Greene]

We interrupt this vacation to bring you a timely and really smart post from my friend Sean Greene, who’s been watching the aftermath of last week’s elections from afar in Rome, Italy. Check it out:

As regular readers of this blog know, sometimes election administration is not for the faint of heart. Last week saw two very close elections in prominent races in Kansas and Ohio, and along with the narrow margins has come the usual and appropriate scrutiny of the process close results bring. As of last Friday in Kansas, for example, the top two candidates for the Republican nomination for governor were separated by 110 ballots out of more than 313,000 ballots cast. In in both races the outcomes are still to be determined, with review and canvassing of votes in process and potential recounts after that.

However, as readers of this blog also know, close elections (and the attention that comes with them) are not uncommon. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted regularly reminds voters of this fact – since 2013 alone in his state alone there have been 140 races decided by one vote or tied.

Which brings us to last week’s results and how close races yet again demonstrate the tension between the desire for quick but “unofficial” results on election night versus official results which can take many weeks to finalize.

The Kansas Republican primary for governor is a perfect example of how the results reported on election night are just the starting point of the counting process. The unofficial election results have changed numerous times since the day after last Tuesday’s election for several reasons including:

  • Errors in the reporting process. Results for one county were initially reported as 422 votes for current governor Jeff Colyer and then corrected to reflect 522 votes for him. As a spokesman for Colyer’s campaign noted, “The discovery of these 100 votes for Governor Colyer that were not included in Tuesday night’s results show the importance of getting this right. This is exactly why you have canvass, this is why you check your math.” There have been updates to results in other counties as well. [We’re also now seeing an emerging dispute over unaffiliated voters. – DMCj]
  • Mail-in ballots. In Kansas, mail-in ballots that are postmarked Election Day but do not arrive until the Friday after the election are eligible to be counted. As a local news report noted, “The state Elections Office updated its unofficial results all day Friday [emphasis mine].”
  • Provisional ballots. This week, more changes are occurring during Kansas counties’ canvass of the vote where 8,999 provisional ballots are being reviewed for their eligibility to be counted or not. [We’re also now seeing many of these ballots at the center of an emerging dispute over unaffiliated voters. – DMCj]

So, to briefly summarize, the unofficial election night totals in Kansas did not (and could not) include nearly 9,000 provisional ballots, a number of mail-in ballots, and did not account for any corrections to vote total errors. In any election, whether it be a close race or a landslide, these ballots are important. But in a close race they can very well change who has the most votes when the counting is completed. And Kansas is not alone in having ballots to process after Election Day.

Millions of mail-in and provisional ballots are counted after election night in California. A few days after the 2016 general election, the Secretary of State released what it calls an “unprocessed ballots report” giving a county-by-county picture of how many ballots are left to be counted. Two days after Election Day the state reported over 4.3 million ballots that needed to be processed and that report was updated almost daily for weeks. The election canvass was completed and the results were certified by December 16, 2016.

Clearly election officials are well aware of the difficulties of describing the multiple stages of vote counting. In fact more than four-and-a-half years ago on this blog, Alysoun McLaughlin, deputy election director in Montgomery County, Maryland, wrote about how this tension plays out across the country and how election results reporting is a process, not a one-time event. She took particular aim at the phrase “unofficial results.”

“The terminology makes no sense to anyone who doesn’t have insider knowledge of how elections are run…We need to tell the rest of the story – from election night through the canvass and certification.”

And herein remains the challenge. Even though unofficial election night results are the first, not final, draft of election results, realistically the public may not perceive election night results as unofficial. Conveying that there is more counting, reviewing, and certifying of votes to be done after election night is difficult. But election officials are and have been making the effort.

The Minnesota Secretary of State’s office clearly describes the process from unofficial results to canvassing the vote to certifying the vote. This excerpt is a bit long but very helpful in demonstrating what happens on and after election night in the state:

“Election results are not official until they have been reviewed and certified by a canvassing board. On Election Night, county election officials enter unofficial election results on the Office of the Secretary of State’s website. Following Election Day, county election officials audit and proof their work to make any corrections as necessary before they canvass their results. It is routine for election officials to discover a number of small errors or typos, such as transposition of digits (e.g., entering the number 48 instead of 84). Once results have been proofed by county election officials, the county canvassing board must review and approve the results before they are official. A county canvassing board certifies the votes cast within the county for races that go beyond the county boundaries and certifies the election results for offices up for election that are voted upon exclusively within that county (county offices and legislative districts that are entirely contained within the county). Federal offices, statewide offices and legislative districts that cross county lines must be certified by the state canvassing board.”

And in Virginia, they have actually measured the changes to the unofficial results that occur after election night. “On occasion, an election official makes an error during this process. Such errors, while not common, are not unforeseeable and one of many reasons why election night results are “unofficial.”  These errors, and any other error in results reporting, are typically corrected during the results review process, referred to as the canvass.”

No doubt states and counties will continue to emphasize the message that election night results are not the final count of votes. But the tension between wanting to know results, who won and who lost, as soon as possible versus the longer amount of time needed to review, verify, and certify results is not going away any time soon.

Thanks to Sean for sharing this piece … it’s a useful reminder that Election Night is the start, not the end, of the vote-counting process. Grazie, Sean – and rimanete sintonizzati! 

[We now resume our previously scheduled blogging break – see you on Monday, August 27.]

5 Comments on "GUEST POST: Sean Greene – “Election Night Results: The First, not Final, Draft”"

  1. Nancy Prosser | August 14, 2018 at 1:06 pm | Reply

    Great article on complexities of vote counting.

  2. Ok, this year we going to vote, congratz for the complete article.

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  4. I wish if I get a chance to join here.

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