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On Tuesday, Nov. 8, Americans cast their ballots to elect some members of Congress and state and local officials. So it's a big day for the United States' democratic system.
You may have seen stories or social media posts earlier this month that declare winners. But even in this time of powerful computers and other speedy technology, the election process isn't completed in a few hours or the next day.
Gretchen Macht, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Rhode Island, talked about why that is. Industrial engineers work on systems and processes. Macht has learned a lot about how election processes work since 2016, when she was asked to help Rhode Island eliminate long voting lines.
"When we count the votes, that takes time because we want it to be right," Macht said. She said kids could think about it like turning in homework. "When you rush through that homework, you get it done, but will it be right? Isn't it better to go through it, to take your time?"
There has been a long tradition of releasing ballot tallies on election night, but those results are unofficial. "They are not double- and triple-checked," Macht said. Part of the reason is that in the United States, there are many ways to vote and to count the votes.
When the Founding Fathers set up the election process, they didn't include many details. They left the "Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections of Senators and Representatives" up to state lawmakers, according to the United States Constitution. As the nation has grown and technology has developed, the process has become more complicated.
"We have 50 different ways of doing things," Macht said.
Each state figures out what it thinks will work for its residents, whether they live in big cities, small towns or remote areas.
Voting times may include casting votes days or weeks in advance and on Election Day. The places may be a mailbox, a drop box or assigned polling place in neighborhoods. And the "manner" could be using paper ballots marked by hand and then scanned; machines that put marks on paper (often from votes marked on a display screen); or machines that feed votes directly into a vote-counting computer system. The hand-marked ballot system is the most widely used.
After voters have finished casting ballots, election officials and volunteers have a lot of work to do. Each voting location, or precinct, needs to secure the ballots then transfer them to the local elections office. After they do that, the city or county will often post those results on its website. But those results are not official, even if all the precincts have finished reporting.
What comes next is called canvassing. A group of people who may be election officials or members of each major political party canvasses, or reviews the ballots for possible problems. They make sure poll workers and voters have followed the rules.
"What if I voted by mail, and I forgot to sign my envelope? I guess my vote doesn't count," Macht said some voters might think.
But the system is designed to catch that error. Many states will allow voters to "cure," or fix that kind of problem so their vote can be counted. But election officials need to contact those people and voters may need to appear in person.
Once the local canvass board is satisfied that all the ballots have been counted properly, local officials review one more time and then certify, or make those results official. Most states give counties or cities 1 to 3 weeks to complete this process. California, which has nearly 22 million registered voters, allows up to 30 days.
They send local results to the state elections office, which has its own review procedure. After that happens, officials certify the results for the entire state.
Sometimes this long process verifies those unofficial results from election night, but in very close elections a different candidate may end up the winner. There's nothing wrong or suspicious about that. It's just election officials and volunteers making sure their version of homework is as accurate as possible.
Macht admits the wait can be frustrating, and she encourages kids to ask questions.
"It's exciting and you want to know the results," she said. "Be patient. And if you don't like the process, you can talk to election officials. They want to share that information with you."
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