The Logistics of the US Election

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    This video was made possible by Dashlane. Browse the internet faster and easier by signingup for free at dashlane.com/Wendover. On November 3rd, 2020, hundreds of millionsof Americans will all make their way to their local polling stations to cast their vothttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyG7nzteG6es—decidingwho will be the next President of the United States of America. That day will be the cumulation of a multi-year,multi-billion dollar election process, but before that all truly ends, the votes needto be counted and the winner has to be declared. As soon as the first polls close at 6:00 PMeastern time, there begins a massive overnight exercise to count hundreds of millions ofvotes and, typically, declare who will next lead the country by the early hours of thefollowing morning. While the true effort doesn’t start untilthe early evening of voting day, the first results come in the early morning of electionday, before most polls have even opened. A few small towns on the East Coast—mostfamously Dixville Notch, New Hampshire—all compete to be the first precinct in the USto report results. New Hampshire state law allows polling placesin the state to close early as long as all registered voters have cast their ballots. Given that the town only has a dozen or soregistered voters, this process is typically finished in minutes or seconds.

    In front of a cluster of cameras from nearlyevery major news organization, the votes are read out and tallied. The process of counting a dozen or so paperballots in a small town is not tough, but a few hours later, the rest of the country’spolling locations will open—each of which eventually has to accurately count up to thousandsof votes. What makes the US election so difficult toconduct right is that there are over 178,000 individual voting precincts, each of whichcan and does do things in a slightly different way. Some use paper ballots that have to be readand interpreted manually, some use paper ballots that are scanned by a machine, some use electronicvoting machines, and some even allow for absentee voting over the internet. The selection of a voting method is a difficultbalancing act—hand-written paper ballots are simple and cheap which means that a pollingstation can process loads of voters at once, but they’re much more difficult to count.

    Electronic voting machines are expensive andcomplicated meaning they’re often in short supply, leading to longer lines, but countingand reporting the votes happens almost instantaneously. Also a major concern in the selection of votingmethod is security. The most secure ballot is no doubt a handwrittenpaper one, as submitting a fraudulent vote involves physically acquiring and submittinga ballot—something that can’t be easily done at a large scale. Arguably the least secure method is electronicvoting machines as anything electronic can be hacked. Almost every voting machine out there hasbeen hacked in some way or another in controlled experiments at hacker conventions such asDefcon. In the real world, it’s impossible to knowfor sure how often voting security has been compromised, but we do know that these machinescan be hacked which is why still today much of the US votes the same way it did hundredsof years ago—on paper ballots. First to close their polling places will beparts of Indiana and Kentucky at 6:00 PM eastern.

    The second that happens, everything shiftsinto counting mode. Both states use a mix of optical scan anddirect record electronic voting machines. For example, the majority of Kentucky’smachines are Hart InterCivic eScan’s. These are those optical scan electronic machineswhere a voter physically fills out a paper ballot, shading in bubbles for their preferredcandidates, then feeds the sheet into a machine which scans the responses, and then recordsand tallies the votes. In Indiana, however, the majority of theirmachines are Microvote Infinity’s, which are examples of direct record electronic machines. These are fully electronic machines wherethe voter selects their candidates of choice on the screen before pressing a button tocast their votes

    Once 6:00 PM rolls around, though, the machines’voting modes will be turned off, they will print out a physical paper backup displayingthe tally of votes for each candidate, and the poll workers will remove a sort of memorydevice that stores the totals. Every step of this process has to be witnessedby multiple people, usually of different political parties. These papers and memory devices are all thenpacked up in sealed envelopes and gathered together. From there, the votes need to make it to acentral vote-counting location. Usually, they’re driven there by the county’spolice to assure there is no interference. That works in most places, but not all. For example, anyone who’s been in Los Angelesin the early evening, when their polls close, knows that it would take hours to get a vehiclefrom Gorman, on the northern end of Los Angeles County, to Norwalk, where votes are tallied.

    Therefore, the county uses helicopters tofly voting records to Norwalk from across the county, and therefore ends up spendingmany millions of dollars on each election day. Traffic is less of a concern in Indiana andKentucky, though, and so, not long after 6:00 PM eastern, votes will start arriving at theircentral counting locations where all the memory devices will be plugged into a tabulatingcomputer that will record the results. They’ll also add in the results from earlyand absentee voting as well. Given the electronic nature of this count,once votes have physically arrived at the site, the process doesn’t take long, butthroughout it all, it will be observed by a bipartisan grouping of poll workers andofficials. Of course, the way the world hears about theresults of the election is not via the government itself, but rather through the media. Almost always, the media tells the publicwho will win the election before all the votes have come in, and they make this call basedoff two key pieces of information. The first is election-day polling.

    There are two competing systems of polling. The first is the Associated Press’ VoteCastsystem—a relatively new method where voters are polled at home via the internet and phonein the days leading up to election day—and the second is the National Election Pool systemused by ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC. This system uses the more traditional exit-pollmethod where individuals leaving polling stations are asked who they voted for, in an attemptto gather a representative sample. Both of these systems give media organizationsan idea of how voters are leaning on election day, and help them know where the resultsare likely to swing. The second major data-point used to projectelection results are the results themselves. A small sampling of results from a countyshould be roughly representative of the county’s results overall. The Associated Press stations about 4,000of its reporters in vote-counting centers all across the country, and as soon as thesecounties report results, the reporters call them in to the AP’s office in Spokane, Washington.

    There, one of hundreds of data entry personnelwill answer the phone and put the information into the AP’s system. These data, which may at the time of entrybe unofficial, are used by news organizations all around the world. Throughout the rest of the night, resultswill come in precinct by precinct and the AP will call the results precinct by precinct. The last polls close at 1:00 AM eastern timein Alaska, however, more than likely, the country will already know who has won theelection by that time. The AP’s DC bureau is in charge of callingthe race. They’ll one-by-one declare each state wonfor one candidate or the other. Some states they’ll know from the secondpolls close which way they’ll go. For example, in 2016, the highly democraticstates of Massachusetts, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland along with the District of Columbiawere all called for Clinton by the AP the very minute polls closed in those places at8:00 pm eastern. The AP just knew off of historical votingtrends and exit polling that they would certainly go blue.

    Meanwhile, battleground states, with a fairlyeven mix of democrats and republicans, tend to be trickier to call and require a goodproportion of actual results to come in. For example, Minnesota’s results in 2016weren’t called until 11:09 AM eastern and Alaska’s not until 11:58 AM eastern on theday after the election. Far before the last state is called, through,the combination of electoral votes designated to the called states will exceed the requiredmajority, 270, and at that time, the AP will send out what they call a, “flash.” These are the very highest tier of AP alerts,reserved for, as they describe it, events they, “expect to be one of the very topstories of the year.” The AP averages less than two flashes a year,and such an alert has been used for events like the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the resignationof Pope Benedict, and the death of Nelson Mandela. It is not always the AP who is the first tocall the race, but more often than not, they are the first major news organization to declarea winner.

    Historically, this tends to happen between9:00 and 11:00 pm eastern, but sometimes much later, and sometimes much earlier. From there, tradition kicks in and the losercalls the winner, the winner throws a party, and the next day the sitting President callsthe President elect. The true, official results might not comein for days or weeks as the states work to tally every vote—not reliant on probability. The moment that happens, though, the clocksreset and the US and world again begins the four-year process leading up to the electionof the next American president.

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