The Science Behind How Your Vote Is Counted

How is your vote counted in an election year? How do voting machines work? And is voting really secure? Everyday Einstein explains.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #214

How Are Votes Counted?

Just as voting equipment may vary state to state, so does the procedure for counting votes. In some jurisdictions, votes are counted at the polling site where they are cast. In other places, the votes are gathered in a more central location before being counted together.

When ballots are transferred, poll workers are usually assigned to stay with the boxes for their entire journey. The mode of transfer also depends on location. Ballots in Ohio, for example, likely travel by car, but ballots in Los Angeles usually get to take a ride in a helicopter.

Ballots in Ohio, for example, likely travel by car, but ballots in Los Angeles usually get to take a ride in a helicopter.

For anyone who has watched what feels like an excruciatingly slow incoming crawl of results on election night, the counting process feels like an eternity. However, large counties are actually required to report new numbers every 15 minutes, while smaller counties are given 30 minutes to an hour.

Once enough votes are collected across the state, the state’s electoral college then meets to cast their votes. Each state is provided one elector for each of its seats in Congress. Thus states with the largest populations, like California, Texas, New York, and Florida, have the largest number of electoral votes. All but two states (Nebraska and Maine) are winner-take-all: all the electors selected to vote are chosen as representatives of the candidate winning the popular vote. Only in some states, however, are electors bound to vote for a certain candidate. For more on how electors are chosen and in which states they are bound by party lines, check out the US government’s archive pages.

Is Voting Secure?

With every election comes the concern for keeping the voting process reliable and secure. The best way to confirm that votes are being accurately counted and to hold the system accountable is to do a full audit after the election. In many states, paper ballots are counted by hand after the election to confirm that the numbers match those that were reported electronically.

However, the audit process varies largely from state to state with some states having very thorough audit procedures (i.e., New Mexico, California, and Missouri) and others having inadequate audits or none at all (i.e., Virginia, Louisiana, and Wyoming).  Of course, audits are not possible in states using DREs with no option to print a paper record.

While the increase in electronic voting has spurred some public concerns over the possibility of rigging an election, there has been no evidence to suggest this can or will take place. In fact, a much easier way to disrupt electronic voting machines would be to slow them down rather than to rig them in some way to transfer votes from one candidate to another.

As for attempts to game the system from the inside, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law produced a thorough investigative report on voter fraud in the US. In a summary of their findings, they note that “voter fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is nearly non-existent, and much of the problems associated with alleged fraud in elections relates to unintentional mistakes by voters or election administrators.”

So, if you are a registered voter, either in the US or in your home country, take the time to exercise your right to make your voice heard through your vote. As someone who lives in a country that would not have allowed me that opportunity 100 years ago, I know that I will.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com

Image courtesy of shutterstock.


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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