For journalists and those who care about politics, Election Day is the main event, the culmination of months of conversation, conjecture, consideration of the issues, the candidates and more. At 7 p.m. local time the race to tabulate ballots begins. As results trickle in county by county, major news organizations begin to call the winners and losers, but behind the scenes, there’s more going on.
Robert Stein knows all about how the sausage gets made on Election Night. He’s a professor in the department of political science at Rice University. Stein says Texas paper ballots are counted by partisan, elected clerks or election managers in each of the state’s 254 counties, before being reported to the public. He says this means the people counting the votes are also on the ballot. If the ballots are digitally cast via direct-record electronic voting machine, or DRE, they are counted by the machines themselves. These polling machines, Stein says, became popular after the 2000 presidential election.
“The possibility of a recount, where you’re sitting there holding a paper ballot and verifying with your physical observation, isn’t possible with a DRE,” Stein says. “It’s raised a lot of concerns of course, not only about errors and hacking, but whether or not you can do what we call a validation or recount.”
Because of these concerns many counties have reverted to the use of paper ballots, Stein says. However, these ballots are counted electronically. Paper ballots are not responsible for the late -night calling of races, a popular belief. Late result reporting is the product of provisional, mail-in and overseas military or expatriate ballots, Stein says. The processing dates and times for all of these ballots vary by county.
Stein says the calls made by news networks on Election Night are not the final results of the election. Texas, along with many other states, requires a canvas of votes before determining election outcomes.
“The canvas is the official recalculation of the vote,” Stein says. “That means going back through and checking every machine that came in from every precinct. That canvas can be done as late as 10 working days after the election. That vote is reported to the Secretary of State and that is the official vote.”
Stein says it is trust in the political process and belief in the fairness of the counting of votes that maintain the American sense of democracy. Elections, Stein says, are most important to those who lose. This, he says, prompts the desire for quick reporting of results, because delays reduces voters’ confidence in the election.
“If we don’t believe that the election was conducted fairly, justly and accurately, he or she and their followers and supporters begin to have diminished support for the government that is elected,” Stein says. “The real threat to democracy is when people don’t believe that we conduct fair elections.”
Written by Brooke Sjoberg.