The results from the Associated Press and television networks may be based, in part, on unofficial local election results, but they are based on other factors including projected results. These are not local or state official results. Many states, counties, or local jurisdictions provide election results in real time, as ballots are being tabulated and updated into election management systems and election night reporting systems. However, these results are unofficial until all votes have been tallied and reviewed and the election has been formally certified. Since each state has different procedures for voting, ballot tabulation times vary across the country. For example, some states require that all ballots are received by no later than the close of polls on Election Day. Others allow ballots to be counted if they are postmarked by Election Day and received by a certain date.
Additionally, voters in many states have an opportunity to correct issues after Election Day if they were required to vote a “provisional” ballot or there was an error in an absentee or mail ballot that may be cured by the voter prior to final certification. Provisional ballots may be issued to voters who do not have the correct form of ID or were not on a voter list when they vote at the polls. These voters typically can provide information at their local election office after the election for their ballots to be counted, if needed.
Once all ballots are received, and the deadline for fixing any ballot issues has passed, then the results of the election can be formally certified. This pre-certification process typically begins immediately following the election and may run between one or several weeks. As part of the “canvass” (the post-election certification of results), the total number of voters in an election is compared to the total number of ballots cast. Some states may conduct “tabulation audits” (the process of verifying that the totals in a given jurisdiction or contest are correct) during the canvass period.
Some races or contests may also be recounted at some point during the certification process. Recounts differ from audits in that every ballot in the election is recounted, and the official results of the election may change as a result. Typically, a recount is either triggered automatically (because the outcome of a contest falls within a legally required margin), or at the request of a candidate or interest group.
Once the canvass, audits, and any recounts have been completed, the election results are certified as official.