I received a New York State specific answer to my question from Thomas E. Connolly, Deputy Director of Public Information for their state board of elections. Here is what he had to say in response to my emailed questions. I've put my questions in quotes and left his responses in normal text.
1) The results listed on your website for the November 2016 election
are still given as "unofficial". I would like to know if anyone has
done a formal study of how different the "unofficial" numbers are
(historically) from the official ones. If such a study exists, where
can I find it? If it doesn't, can I see the raw historical data? How
do the numbers change between, say, the morning after the election and
the day the results are officially certified?
I am unaware if anyone has ever done a formal study. The unofficial numbers are just those numbers provided to us by county boards of elections on election night. Those numbers represent votes cast on machines at polling places. They may or may not be complete on election night (some may have most, but not all districts reporting). The unofficial number does not include any affidavit ballots cast at poll sites or any absentee ballots mailed in by voters. Those numbers will be included in the certified results which will be published next week.
2) I gather there are roughly 200,000 local election precincts
throughout the country, each of which reports to a county board of
elections. Perhaps there are 1000 county boards of election in the
US, each of which reports to a state election board. Then somehow the
state election board results are assembled and broadcast over network
news. How, in detail, does this process work?
In New York State, there are 62 counties. Results for the 5 boroughs of NYC are reported to the State Board by the NYC Board of Elections. In the other 57 counties, there is a local county board of elections. In each county, there are a number of poll sites which may serve more than one election district. On election night, once polls are closed, results in the form of a portable memory device is taken from each machine used at an election and securely transported back to a centralized location, normally the board of elections. Those memory devices are read into a tabulation system which then aggregates the results. Counties then provide their information to the State Board who does additional aggregation for statewide contests or those that cross county lines.
a) Do the local precincts phone in their results to the county? Do
they email their results? If it's email or some other automated
process, how is the security of that information guaranteed? Do people
physically carry the results to the county board? Who are these
people and how are they chosen?
Please see the answer above. As for who is transporting the information from poll sites to the centralized location for tabulation, that answer may vary somewhat from county to county. Usually it would be one or more of the poll workers who have been assigned for that election. It could also be county board staff and, in some locations, law enforcement assists in the transport of this information.
b) How do the counties communicate with the state boards of elections?
Is it email or some other automated process? How do we know that
process is secure? For security reasons, I am aware that you may not
be able or willing to share some of this information. But then is
there a letter on file from someone I could trust that vouches for the
security of the process, a member of the NSA for example?
For the unofficial results, the information is transmitted to the State Board through a secure connection that each county has with the state. This connection is continually monitored and only specific machines on the county end can connect to the state system.
c) How do the state boards of election communicate with the news
media? Am I guaranteed that process is secure? If there are
mistakes made, how do they get rectified?
The NYS State Board of Elections does not communicate with the news media for results. Depending on the media outlet, they may get their information from various sources - the State Board, their county board, the Associated Press. I'm not quite certain as to your exact question about mistakes. If news media misreports, that would be their issue to rectify. The information reported by the State is based on the information received from the counties. Although it would be unlikely that the information would incorrect, it may be more likely that the information could be incomplete for various reasons. That is why the results are considered unofficial. As for the process of certifying the final results, there is a recanvass procedure as a quick check that the numbers reported on election night were correct and there is also a post-election audit which randomly selects 3% of the machines used at an election, and verifies the electronically tabulated result with a manual canvass of the paper ballots.