Count Every Vote, So Every Vote Counts

People wearing latex gloves open ballots
Luzerne County employees open mail-in ballots to be counted at the elections board in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on November 4, 2020. Credit: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News

On Election Day, millions of Americans fulfill their civic duty to vote. Millions more will have already cast their ballot, either early or by mail, before Election Day. It may take a while – from a few days to a few weeks – to count all those ballots, but we need to be patient for our democracy to work for all of us.

A hallmark of our democracy is that every vote counts, and that means we must count every vote. While it would be nice to know the election results by the time we go to bed at night, we probably won’t have a final result for a few states on election night. That’s not a sign something is wrong, it’s a sign our democracy is working.

Bad actors and self-interested politicians may try to claim victory early on election night, when first results are being reported, and then cry foul when their lead dwindles as more votes are counted. These claims are, at best, misleading. At worst, they are intentionally designed to sow distrust in our elections. The reality is it is normal for election results to take days or weeks to be fully tabulated. 

Even when the television prompter says “100% of precincts are reporting,” election workers in those precincts could still be processing thousands of vote by mail and provisional ballots that were cast on or before election day. We need to be patient while election workers verify and count every ballot. Accuracy is more important than speed, and the confidence that our election was secure and accurate is worth the wait.

In fact, the official results have never come out on election night. In every election, election workers keep working well past election day to canvass and certify the results. Canvassing involves tabulating and double-checking election results to ensure they are accurate. Then, county election boards need to certify the results, meaning they officially declare the winner.

Canvassing and certification takes weeks to complete. In Michigan, for example, the deadline for counties to certify their results is November 22, two weeks after the election. The results are then certified again – by the state board of canvassers or the secretary of state – before they are considered the official results. The deadline for states to certify their results isn’t until mid-December in most states.

That may seem like a long time, but these extra steps are built into our democracy for a reason: they ensure our elections are secure and accurate.

As Americans, we have the freedom and duty to vote. We also have a duty to ensure that every vote is counted, and that requires patience while election workers count every ballot and double check their work.

Above all, we have a duty to accept the results, regardless of the outcome. Our elections are decided by voters, not politicians, and the will of voters must always prevail.

Trevor is CLC's founder and one of the country's top election lawyers.