2020 has been the year that we’ve all learned to expect the unexpected. But one thing we can definitely expect on election night is that we won’t have the official election results – and that’s not cause for alarm. This year in particular, with so many states navigating  an increase in mail ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has never been more important for our democracy to have accurate election results over speedy results. 

When election night results have been reported in previous years, the truth is, they’ve been just that:  the reported results, not the official results. Election results are considered official and certified only when all canvass procedures are complete. Depending on the state’s laws, the certification window ranges from nine days to a month. The results for Presidential contests have historically been certified by the Safe Harbor deadline, which is the deadline for states to choose the electors for the Electoral College. This year, the deadline is December 8 – over a month after the General Election

There are good reasons for this post-election certification window: it allows for the receipt of absentee ballots for military and overseas voters, the adjudication of provisional ballots, and procedural audits of ballots cast. Depending on the jurisdiction, other types of post-election audits including risk-limiting audits are also conducted during this time to check that the computers counted the ballots accurately. Verified Voting recommends robust post-election audits of paper ballots as a key election security measure

This year we’ve seen an unprecedented increase in mail ballots due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mail ballots require different processing procedures than votes cast in person (all of which take more time!). Mail ballots need to be opened and sorted, and some states, including the swing states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,  do not allow for the processing of mail ballots before Election Day. Processing involves checking the ballot envelopes for eligibility (including things like signature checking), sorting the ballots, and preparing them to be scanned – even before actually scanning or tabulating the votes. Other states allow for pre-processing, but don’t allow for the scanning to begin until after the polls close on election night

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and anxiety of watching the precinct reporting on election night, or to tune out once the unofficial totals are announced – but that can also be dangerous. After all, we shouldn’t give ballots cast on Election Day more weight than those cast earlier (by mail) but counted later. The strength of our democracy rests on every valid ballot being counted before declaring a winner.