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Presidential election never final until Jan. 6, no matter the year

Vote count procedure

A screen capture from the live video stream of vote counters in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, one of many counties in the nation still tallying ballots three days after polls closed Nov. 3.

As of Friday morning, Nov. 6, only 85 percent of Texas votes had been completely tallied and reported. In Burnet County, election officials still had 233 provisional ballots to either approve or discount. The office could still receive 36 outstanding votes from overseas and a few hundred outstanding vote-by-mail ballots that were sent out but so far have not returned.

“We have until Monday (Nov. 9) to receive mail FPABs (federal postcard application ballots) for overseas military or citizens,” Burnet County Elections Administrator Doug Ferguson said. “When the ballot board reconvenes on Tuesday, what they will be doing is counting any provisional ballots that should be counted and adding to the tally any late ballots that were eligible and came in on time.” 

That’s right. Legal votes are still coming in: from military personnel and citizens living overseas, from provisional ballots that have to be verified, and from mail-in ballots postmarked in time but lost in the mail stream. A court-ordered sweep of U.S. Postal Service facilities nationwide netted 815 ballots in Texas yet to be delivered to county election officials. 

A few straggling ballots in the Lone Star State won’t make much difference in election outcomes as none of the races were “too close to call” here as they are in other states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada.

Inspectors from both parties, observers from nonpartisan groups, and reporters from multiple media outlets are recording every move. In Pennsylvania, anyone who wants to can watch the count via live stream. (This link will no longer work once the count is final.)

Ultimately, no matter how many days it takes to count all of the votes, election results from the president to local constable do not become official until they are canvassed and certified by the governmental bodies involved. 

That process begins in county election offices, where the votes are tallied. From there, they go to the ballot board, a group of people appointed by county commissioners. 

“The ballot board members were here all day long Tuesday opening ballot envelopes, stacking them up, and getting them ready for the scanner,” Ferguson said. 

He likened the position of a ballot board member to serving on a jury. He called it “a volunteer position with a little of cash.” They get paid $11 an hour. 

“They were amazing,” he continued. 

Ferguson had high praise for the entire team of people who worked throughout the election process, which ran from mid-summer through Election Day and included setting up polling places, making sure all computer systems were running smoothly, and answering the phones.

“People have no idea what it’s like to be part of something like that,” he said. “It’s overwhelming non-stop work. You have to be on every minute. So many people are involved in what we do here, and there’s no way we would have survived without all of them.”

Work on the 2020 election in Burnet County won’t draw to a close until after at least two members of the county Commissioners Court canvasses the results. The canvass is then certified in the county judge’s office before being sent to the secretary of state. That usually happens sometime in December. 

In the case of the presidential election, canvassed and certified vote counts must be delivered to the Electoral College no later than six days before “the Monday after the second Wednesday in December,” according to federal law. On that Monday, which this year is Dec. 14, electors will cast the votes that officially determine the next president of the United States.

As outlined in the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College has one elector for each U.S. senator and representative plus three additional for the District of Columbia. Each state determines how it will choose those 538 people. 

In Texas, the 38 people who represent the state’s 38 electoral votes — the second-largest number in the nation — are chosen at the Democratic and Republican state party conventions over the summer. Texas is one of 33 states that awards all of its electoral college votes to the majority winner of the popular vote. 

The electors then send the votes on to Washington, D.C., where a newly sworn in Congress will formally declare the winner on Jan. 6, 2021. That person and his running mate will be sworn in on Jan. 20 by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts for a four-year term of office.

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