Understanding Election Results

Last updated on November 18, 2020

Vote.org is following the 2020 General Election very closely and will regularly disseminate information and any action items that voters should take. Please visit this website for ongoing updates, subscribe to our emails, and follow us @votedotorg on social media for additional information.

For more information on your rights as a voter, visit our Election Protection page.

What is a runoff election?

In some states, if a candidate does not receive more than 50% of the vote, a new election is held between the top two vote recipients. This new election is called a "runoff," and will ultimately determine the winner.

Voters in Georgia and Louisiana, therefore, will get another chance to cast a ballot to determine the winners in their state’s respective runoff elections in the coming months. The Georgia runoff election on January 5, 2021, will decide the winner of two U.S. Senate races. The outcome of this runoff will determine which party has control of the Senate. The Louisiana runoff election on December 5, 2020, meanwhile, will determine a U.S. House seat as well as several local races.

Visit our Georgia state election center or our Louisiana state election center to learn more.

News sources have called the race. What happens next?

American voters turned out in record numbers to make their voices heard, and election officials and poll workers around the country worked tirelessly to guarantee voters could exercise their rights safely and securely.

  • News sources such as the Associated Press, Fox, CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC have predicted the Presidential Election based on reported counts from election officials.
  • Over the coming weeks, election officials will continue the process of counting every vote and these results will be certified.
  • In December, presidential electors will meet to formally cast their votes to reflect the will of the voters in their state.
  • In January, a new Congress will formally count those electoral votes.
  • Finally, on January 20 at noon, the current presidential term will end and the president-elect will be sworn in.

How long does it take to count ballots?

Accuracy takes time and democracy is worth the wait.

  • Every eligible voter should have their voice heard and their vote counted. Due to health concerns surrounding COVID-19, more people have voted by mail than ever before and absentee ballots take longer to count because of security measures to verify the accuracy of those ballots.
  • While some states could begin processing and counting ballots in advance of November 3rd, some states were not allowed to begin counting absentee ballots until the polls had closed on Election Night. Due to COVID-19, election officials are working with reduced staff. Please be patient so election officials can ensure every eligible vote is counted accurately.
  • We didn't know the full results by Election Night and that’s normal. We should re-frame expectations for an “Election Week” and “Election Season.”

When are election results final?

Early returns may differ from final counts.

  • It will be several days or weeks before all ballots have been counted and results are finalized.
  • Election Night results are always preliminary and it is likely that early returns will look different from the final outcome. The only count that matters is the official one.
  • Ballots that are counted after Election Day are not new votes. These votes were cast before the deadline in each state, and the process of counting takes time. Election winners are determined once every vote is properly counted, whether that is on or after Election Night.

How do election officials ensure votes are counted accurately?

Every state has an official process for certifying results.

  • The process takes place in the days (and sometimes weeks) after Election Day to make sure every eligible vote is counted.
  • In some states this includes continuing to count absentee ballots; in most states it includes adding any verified provisional ballots to the vote totals; and in every state there is a process called a “canvass” where election officials examine the vote totals to make sure every ballot was counted and there are no clerical errors in the results. Only at the end of this process will we know the “certified results” of the election.
  • Some version of the canvass process happens in every county, in every state, in every election (not just in presidential elections). It is a routine part of making sure every vote is counted.

Mail-in ballots are safe and secure, but may take longer to count.

  • Voting by mail is an established part of our electoral system. In the last two federal elections, nearly 1 in 4 voters cast a mail-in ballot. More than 250 million votes have been safely and accurately cast by mail-in ballots since 2000.
  • Voting by mail has long been supported by election officials, politicians, and voters across the political spectrum.
  • Due to health concerns surrounding COVID-19, more people voted by mail than ever before, and absentee ballots take longer to count because of security measures to verify the accuracy of those ballots.
  • You can make sure your mail-in ballot was counted using our ballot tracker.

What is the process for a very close race? What does a recount mean?

  • A recount is the process of re-examining ballots to ensure they were counted accurately.
  • After the canvass occurs and the certified results are known, there might be a recount for certain close races. Unlike the canvass (which happens for every election), there won’t automatically be a recount for every close race. Recount rules differ widely from state to state.
  • In some states, there will automatically be a recount if the vote margin between the first place and second place candidates is within a close range. For example, there might be an automatic recount if the vote margin is 0.5%.
  • In other states, there are no automatic recounts even if the race is within a single vote. In these states, however, the trailing candidate often has the right to request a recount. Sometimes there’s a cap on which candidates are allowed to request recounts. For example, state law might say that the vote margin needs to be 1% or less or else the second-place candidate can’t request a recount.

How does the recount actually work?

  • Depending on the state, the recount could be a “hand recount” or a “machine recount.” In a hand recount, ballots are examined in person one at a time. Election officials and representatives of both candidates will examine the ballots and decide which candidate the voter intended to vote for. In a machine recount, the ballots are fed back through the machine to make sure the machine didn’t make any counting errors the first time the ballots were scanned.
  • If there is a discrepancy between the results of a recount and the certified results, either the recount results will stand, or a court may decide which set of results to use to certify the election.

Are voters able to correct any issues with their ballot after Election Day?

Yes, but each state has its own set of rules and deadlines.

  • Many states allow voters to correct any mistakes on your ballot after Election Day. This includes addressing an issue on your ballot, or providing the additional information needed to remedy a provisional ballot.
  • Nearly every state allows voters to cast a provisional ballot if the election official can’t verify a voter's eligibility. If you had to cast a provisional ballot, there are steps you can take to ensure your vote is counted.
  • This year, more voters than ever before cast their ballots by mail. Every state has security measures in place to safeguard against voter impersonation or fraud when voting by mail. Usually, this involves requiring each voter to sign their name on the vote by mail envelope or provide other verification information on the envelope. If you make a mistake on your ballot envelope (for example, you forget to sign the envelope, or the election official can’t read your handwriting) the election official may require you to “cure” the issue before they will count the ballot.
  • In most cases, the election official will notify you promptly if there’s a need to cure your ballot. The notification will tell you what information you need to provide to make the cure (such as signing a new ballot envelope or providing a copy of your ID) and the deadline for submitting that information.
  • You have several options if you think you may need to cure your ballot but you haven’t received a notice from your election official. First, many states offer a website where you can check the status of your mail ballot to see if it has been counted or may need to be cured. You can also reach out directly to your local election official to ensure they received your ballot and will count it. Be aware there can be strict ballot cure deadlines in some states (sometimes as early as Election Day or the day before).

For more information on ballot curing, provisional ballots and what you should do if you think you cast one, and other information about your rights as a voter, visit our Election Protection page.

Who certifies election results in each state?

Only certified election results are official.

The chief election official in each state is responsible for certifying election results. In most states, this role is held by the secretary of state.

Your secretary of state’s website is the best place to get up-to-date, nonpartisan information about election results. Use the directory halfway down the page to find a comprehensive list of secretaries of state. For battleground states, we have provided the links below:

Post-Election Terms

Source: Democracy Docket

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 ballots that arrived after Election Day but by the state deadline). The timing of the canvass varies by state.