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The focus of vote recounts in the news media seems to be largely on fidelity of voting machines, missing or tampered ballots, and other irregularities associated with precinct level events. Yet, there are I gather about 200,000 local precincts in the US, and somehow all that data has to be tabulated and reported to the public. The local precincts report to county election boards, the county boards to state elections boards. Then somehow the news media finds out, typically within hours of the polls closing. While the fidelity of voting machines and other precinct level aspects of the process seems to be covered well in the news media, I'm having trouble finding out reliable information about the rest of the process.

  • Excluding the precinct level aspect of the story, how does the rest of the process work in detail?

  • Assuming (for the sake of this question) that voting machine security were not an issue, is what happens after the machines output their results a secure process? How is the public guaranteed of its security? How would we find out about errors or tampering?

  • Re "Is it a secure process?": it's unclear if the term process entirely excludes voting machine fidelity. Additional adjectives seem necessary, otherwise we might imagine the garbage results of a corrupted machine accurately but uncritically reported up through the precinct bureaucracy, then accurately reported to media representatives, and obliviously but accurately broadcast by the media. Referring to such GIGO as "a secure process" seems needlessly confusing. – agc Nov 26 '16 at 6:06
  • Of course voting machine fidelity is an important aspect of the process, but that aspect seems to be covered well in the news media. I'm wondering about the rest of the process. – user2309840 Nov 26 '16 at 14:35
  • +1. Another, related, question I have already asked here without success is when, how, and at which level (precint, county, state?) the vote by mails are added to the votes cast by in-person voters? – Joël Nov 26 '16 at 15:01
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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.

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