Despite the differences, there are common steps taken in almost every election. Each one provides a potential opportunity for news coverage.

Voter registration

In every state except North Dakota, residents must register to vote. For state and federal elections, all voters must be U.S. citizens age 18 or older, though some states allow those under age 18 to pre-register.

States have their own rules for registering voters and different registration deadlines. In some states, voters must register up to 30 days before an election. Other states allow voters to register on Election Day. The registration process also varies. Some states allow voters to register online. Others automatically register eligible voters unless the voter opts out.

News Angle: Registration rules are important because they help determine who does and doesn’t get to vote. Some questions you might want to ask: Is it easy or hard to register in your area? Why is that the case and do the rules favor one group of voters over another? Are certain kinds of ID required? Are those with felony records allowed to vote? Some communities allow non-citizens to vote in local elections. What issues does that raise? What, if any, restrictions are imposed on third-party voter registration drives? What registration options do voters have? Almost all state and local election offices list registration requirements on their websites. Other sites provide state-by-state comparisons.

Maintaining voter rolls

Election officials constantly update the voter rolls. One reason is to add new voters. Another is to change entries for voters who have moved, changed their name, died or become ineligible. Each state’s voter registration system is different, but they record similar information, including a voter’s legal name, address, and sometimes their signature. Election officials use the voter’s address to determine which ballot to issue. For example, only voters who live in the City of Jacksonville can vote in its city council race.

The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) sets some national rules for voter rolls. NVRA applies to 44 states and the District of Columbia. The act requires states to keep voter registration lists accurate and current. This includes identifying voters who have become ineligible to vote due to death or a move. The Act also provides safeguards for voters. Election officials must meet certain requirements before removing voters from the rolls.

News Angle: How voter rolls are maintained has led to tensions between those who believe that eligible voters have been removed erroneously and those who believe that failure to keep lists updated undermines public confidence and enables fraud. Suspected voter roll inaccuracies have led private citizens to challenge the validity of individual voters, a sometimes contentious process.

Debate has also emerged over a data-sharing system used by states to update their rolls, called the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC. Unfounded allegations that the system is not secure and favors Democrats has caused a number of states to withdraw from ERIC. This is an evolving story worth watching in 2024. The National Conference of State Legislatures has produced a detailed report on maintaining accurate voter rolls.

Finding polling locations

Finding adequate polling locations is a challenge for election officials. Each one should be within or close to the town, city or county it serves. Polling locations are supposed to provide parking for voters who arrive by car. They also need enough space to accommodate voters, election officials and observers. Election officials often use schools, churches and community centers as polling locations. These officials generally check to make sure the sites have adequate access to power for voting equipment and that non-voting equipment has an internet or cellular connection.

Every polling location is required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Before each election, officials are supposed to survey every polling location to ensure ADA compliance. If a location cannot comply, then it should not serve as a polling location.

News Angle: The selection of voting sites is a logistical challenge, but can also raise political questions. Do poor, minority communities have as much access as wealthier suburbs? Should universities have their own polling sites? What about remote areas such as rural Native American communities? Will the location of sites lead to long lines in some areas and no lines in others? Are there enough poll workers or resources to equip a particular location? Does the site meet ADA requirements? What kinds of challenges do unexpected developments—such as a pandemic or a hurricane— pose to operating these sites? Are the problems encountered due to poor planning or not enough funding?

This is an area of election administration that gets little media attention during the year, but can lead to a huge story on or after Election Day. You might want to start asking questions now. Check in with jurisdictions that don’t have problems with polling locations to find out what they do differently.

Designing ballots

A great deal of work and planning goes into designing ballots. Election officials review candidate paperwork to gather important information. This includes each candidate’s name, party affiliation and the office they are pursuing. Local rules dictate that candidates must appear on the ballot in a certain order. There are also rules for how to display a candidate’s name, including nicknames. Ballots should be easy to understand and have clear instructions for voters. Election officials are supposed to provide accessible ballots, including audio ballots, for voters with disabilities. Many jurisdictions provide ballots in foreign languages. Election officials are not supposed to issue ballots until all candidate information is ready. They have to complete and confirm all content in time to print and mail them for the election. Any mistakes can be expensive to correct or even lead to litigation.

News Angle: Ballot design gets little attention, but is crucial because it can affect the outcome of a race. Who gets top billing? Is the ballot easy to understand? What languages are used? How is the ballot displayed on a voting machine? What happens if a name or party affiliation is wrong and it’s too late to fix the error? Who makes these decisions? Bad ballot design can undermine public confidence in an election and even throw it into turmoil. Remember 2000, when “butterfly ballots” and “hanging chads” caused widespread confusion over the intentions of Florida voters and the resolution ended up in the Supreme Court?

Printing ballots

Printing ballots comes next, and ink and paper weight are tremendously important. Election officials usually contract with a company to print ballots, though some large jurisdictions do their own printing and post their own mail ballots. For in-person voting during early voting and on Election Day, election officials use turnout data to estimate how many ballots to print, package and deliver in each ballot style to each voting location. Some polling sites may have special printers that can print ballots on Election Day.

The number of mail ballots needed is determined by the number of registered voters or mail ballot requests. But printing these ballots is tricky. Mail ballots need to have accurate fold marks and cover every ballot style in the jurisdiction, so they are usually printed by vendors with mail ballot expertise. Typically, these vendors also print outgoing envelopes, return envelopes, instructions and other mail ballot materials along with the ballots, and then send these mail ballot packets to voters.

News Angle: There are several angles that journalists might want to explore. Who are the vendors hired to print ballots? How are they chosen and monitored? What kind of ballots are they printing – the ones voters mark at the polling place or mail ballots that also require envelopes and delivery, a more complicated process? What challenges do they face getting the job done in a timely and accurate way? During the pandemic, vendors were overwhelmed with orders for millions of mail ballots and envelopes at a time when paper supplies were limited.

What happens if a printer misses a deadline, makes a printing mistake or sends a voter the wrong mail ballot? What if election officials didn’t order enough ballots? Is there a backup plan if a flood or fire destroys printed ballots right before or after Election Day?

Testing voting equipment

To ensure secure, accurate voting, it’s important that voting equipment does what it’s designed to do. Before each election, officials test the voting equipment during a process called logic and accuracy testing. This includes testing ballot scanners, vote tabulators, ballot-marking devices, election management systems, election night reporting systems and electronic pollbooks. The public is usually invited in to observe some of these tests.

Here’s an example of how testing works for one piece of voting equipment: vote tabulators, which are used to count ballots. First, election officials create a test batch of ballots by marking them so they know the expected result. Next, the officials run the marked test ballots through the tabulator. Finally, the officials compare the tabulator’s result to the expected result. If those results are the same, then the tabulator is working as intended. If the results are different, officials reprogram and retest the tabulators. During this process, election officials include ballots with errors such as blank ballots to ensure that the tabulator reads and responds to common ballot errors. Another example: Election officials test electronic poll books to ensure that the voter list is up-to-date. They also check that the poll books are working for voter check-in.

News Angle: This step in the process can be obscure, but it provides an opportunity to explain how the system works, to spot potential problems and to find out what election officials plan to do to fix them. Press your local election office to allow you to attend, observe and report on as much of this testing as possible. Most election administrators will be happy to let you do so, because voters are much more likely to see your report on the tests than to come to the election office to observe them in person. Some election offices have started livestreaming this testing so voters can watch from home.

Recruiting and training poll workers

Election officials recruit and train hundreds of thousands of temporary workers before every election. Most serve as poll workers on Election Day. Poll workers open and close polling locations. They set up voting booths and lay out election materials. They also operate the polling location, including checking in voters. Poll workers assist voters with questions or issues to help ensure a safe and secure voting experience. Some jurisdictions use terms other than poll worker, such as election worker, election judge and officer of election.

Election officials train poll workers for their Election Day duties. Training sessions vary by location and role. It may last an hour or a full day. Additionally, most election officials provide poll workers with manuals and quick reference materials that cover common Election Day issues.

News Angle: This is almost certainly the largest coordinated volunteer (although most poll workers receive a small stipend) effort in the country. Recruitment has become more difficult as the voting process has become increasingly complex and election threats have made some citizens reluctant to step up. Inadequately staffed sites or poorly trained poll workers can mean problems for voters and reduce public confidence.

Among the questions to explore: How are poll workers recruited? Are there enough to staff every polling location? Have they been properly trained? Do poll workers understand the rules, like what types of voter identification are required? Do they know how to treat individuals with disabilities? Do they follow local electioneering laws and keep partisan observers from interfering with the process? Many jurisdictions allow members of the media to observe and report on poll worker training. It’s a good way for journalists to learn the rules and inform the public about steps taken — or not taken — to ensure that voting is fair and accurate.

Early voting

Early voting refers to the process of voting in person before Election Day. Almost all jurisdictions have some form of early voting. These voting periods vary by state, from three to 46 days. The average early voting period starts 20 days before Election Day.

In many jurisdictions, early voting works just like Election Day voting. Voters report to a designated early voting location that is similar to a polling place and check in. Poll workers find voters’ names in the pollbook, check them in and issue them an in-person ballot. In some jurisdictions, voters must complete an absentee ballot application before voting early.

News Angle: Early voting has become increasingly popular, despite some opposition from partisans who believe all voting should be on Election Day. Many voters like the convenience and flexibility of voting when they want. Some worry about waiting until Election Day to cast their ballot in case an unforeseen event, such as an illness, prevents them from turning out.

Political parties and campaigns also prefer that their supporters vote early, either in person or by mail, so they can focus Election Day get-out-the-vote efforts on those who have yet to vote. Some Black churches like the option of early voting on Sundays as part of “Souls to the Polls” programs. Early voting can provide a preview of overall turnout in an election and what, if any, problems might emerge. One question to explore is whether early voting locations and options have been fairly distributed, so one group of voters is not favored over another. Such decisions can be politically motivated or simply made for logistical reasons.

Processing mail ballots

States handle mail ballots in different ways. Some states send mail ballots to all active registered voters. Others require voters to complete a vote-by-mail application to receive a mail ballot — how often they must complete this application depends on state law. The application might ask the voter’s reason for voting by mail. Election officials then send each approved voter a mail ballot and instructions. They also send each voter a special envelope for returning the ballot. In some jurisdictions, the return envelope has prepaid postage.

Similar to voting in person, voters who return their ballots by mail must verify their identity. In all states, returned mail ballots go through a validation process to ensure the person voting the ballot is the same person the ballot was issued to. In addition to requiring the voter to sign an affidavit, election officials may compare the voter’s signature to the signature they have on file. They might also require the voter to provide the last four digits of their Social Security number or their driver’s license number. In some states a witness or notary signature is required.

Most voters return their completed ballots to the local election office by mail. Many jurisdictions also have drop boxes for returning ballots. States have processes and policies in place to address completed ballots that arrive damaged or ballot packets with missing information.

Many election offices process mail ballots as they are received, after the voter’s identity is verified and the voter’s record is updated to show a ballot was returned. To ensure secrecy, election officials separate ballots from return envelopes and other materials before running them through a ballot scanner to record the voter’s selections.

Officials do not report any results until the close of polls on Election Day. Some states prohibit election officials from processing mail ballots until Election Day or after polls close. Election officials generally store these ballots in secure, locked containers.

News Angle: How mail ballots are delivered and processed has become one of the most controversial aspects of elections, especially after the massive expansion of mail voting during the pandemic. The debate is usually between those who want stricter requirements to ensure security and efficiency and those who want more voter accessibility and convenience. The rules can make a huge difference in whose votes get counted. Voters’ failure to meet requirements – such as signing the ballot envelope – has led to the rejection of hundreds of thousands of mail ballots. Some states allow voters to fix these mistakes in a process called “curing,” but others do not and the ballot is rejected. Deadlines for receiving mail ballots are also controversial.

Some jurisdictions require mail ballots to arrive before Election Day. Others count ballots received after Election Day as long as they are postmarked by that date, but this can extend the counting period for days, often frustrating voters, candidates and election officials alike. The use of drop boxes to return ballots has also been the target of much debate. The option was expanded greatly in 2020 amid concerns about slow mail delivery and in-person voting during a pandemic. Critics alleged, without evidence, that these drop boxes were the source of fraud, and several communities have since restricted their use. Mail voting will almost certainly be the subject of more debate and litigation in 2024.

Election Day voting

Any registered voter who has not already cast a ballot may vote on Election Day. Poll open and close times vary from state to state. In general, polls open between 6:00 and 8:00 a.m. and close between 6 and 8 p.m.

In most states, voters report to a designated precinct polling place. Poll workers then check those voters in. Each voter must confirm their identity. Some states require each voter to show a photo ID. Others ask each voter to confirm their address. If poll workers cannot find a voter in the pollbook at check-in, they issue the voter a provisional ballot. These ballots are kept separate and counted once the voter’s registration is confirmed.

In places with electronic pollbooks, poll workers can see in real-time if someone has voted in person at another location or returned a completed mail ballot. This is possible because the electronic pollbooks are connected to the voter registration list over the internet.

Other pieces of voting equipment, such as ballot marking devices and ballot scanners, are never connected to the internet. The only other internet use is after polls close in some jurisdictions that permit the transmission of unofficial results while memory devices and ballots are being returned to a central office. This is done only to ensure that unofficial results are gathered quickly.

Once the voter has checked in at the polling place, they can mark their paper or digital ballot, depending on the voting system. After marking their paper ballot, the voter inserts it into a ballot scanner, and the scanner records the voter’s selections. In the limited number of places that use direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, voters’ selections are directly recorded to the machine and stored on a removable memory device.

Election officials spend Election Day trying to ensure a smooth voting process. They might have to respond to emergencies, such as ballot shortages or power outages. Many state and local election offices operate Election Day call centers. Voters can call to ask questions about where or how to vote. They can also report incidents at polling locations.

News Angle: Here’s where all the work of the past months, even years, can determine whether voters have a positive experience. Does the equipment work? Are wait times minimal? Is everyone obeying the rules? In most cases, the answer will be yes – and that is a story worth telling. But there’s always the possibility an issue will arise that causes public confusion, aggravation or worse. People will rely on the media to provide answers. What is the extent and nature of the problem, how are voters and the outcome of the election affected and what, if anything, is being done to address the issue? This is where your pre-election preparations will come in handy. You should know

by now how the system is supposed to work, who to ask for details and how to explain what’s going on. Election Day legal challenges and protests at polling sites have become increasingly common, and you should be prepared to cover them too. Again, be aware of the rules and laws governing media coverage, which vary from place to place. Journalists are usually allowed inside polling sites and election offices, but with restrictions. In no case, can a reporter interfere with the voting process itself. Partisan and nonpartisan observers might also be present and there are rules governing what they’re allowed to do as well.

Counting ballots

Before any in-person ballots, memory devices or unofficial counts are returned to the election office during early voting or on Election Day, and before any local election office mail ballot tallies are provided to a central election office, election workers conduct the reconciliation process to verify that there are not more ballots cast than voters who were given credit for voting.

Once the number of voters and voted ballots are reconciled, election workers take next steps to securely transmit ballots, memory devices or unofficial counts to a central election office to begin tabulation. Most jurisdictions use vote tabulating machines within each precinct to read a voter’s selections and create a record of the results. Sometimes vote tabulators are unable to read ballots with errors like stray marks. Teams of poll workers – often bipartisan – review these ballots and interpret unclear marks as votes or not before that contest is counted.

News Angle: What did voters decide? That’s what it’s all about. Most states allow the public and media to observe at least part of the vote-counting process. Be familiar with the rules in case busy poll workers don’t know them and try to limit your access. The most important thing for you to know – and to convey to the public – is that results released on Election Night are preliminary. The official count comes later, after all the ballots have been tabulated, double checked and certified. Keeping the public accurately informed about the status of the vote count is crucial.

Confusion about this process led to conspiracy theories and even violent protests and threats against election officials in 2020. This has also led some activists to demand that ballots be hand counted. They argue that this is more accurate than machine counting, although studies show the opposite. Expect this debate to continue in 2024.

Certifying results

Election results are not official until they are certified. Local election officials certify results for their jurisdictions. State election officials certify results for the state and federal contests. This process sometimes includes other state officials as well.

There are several steps before certification, and the process can take weeks. Before certification, election officials review preliminary election results for discrepancies. They confirm that the number of voters who checked in matches the number of ballots cast. Election officials do research to try to resolve or explain any discrepancies.

Election officials must also review all provisional ballots. Provisional ballots are for voters whose registration or qualifications are in question. Officials count them only if they can confirm the voter’s registration and qualification. This process takes time and research to complete. Officials may also be required to accept mail ballots that were initially rejected if a voter “cures” – corrects any discrepancies – their ballot. Returned ballots from military and overseas voters, often referred to as UOCAVA (Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act) voters, are also provided additional time, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.

Recounts can further delay certification for certain races. Some states have automatic recounts for very close races. Sometimes a candidate can request a recount. Each state has its own rules for when, how and if a candidate can start a recount or contest the outcome.

News Angle: Some questions you might ask in the event of a recount: Who will conduct it and how? How much is open to the public and media? Will there be a legal challenge? The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has a detailed description of canvassing and certification. You should be familiar with the laws and rules in your jurisdiction, in the event certification becomes a major focal point as it did in 2020. Are the proper procedures being followed?

Election audits

Many states perform post-election audits, generally prior to certification, but sometimes after. Audits generally provide evidence that the election outcome was correct. They can also help election officials identify issues with the election.

Two common types are fixed-percentage audits and risk-limiting audits. Fixed-percentage audits look at a percentage of voting districts or voting machines. Election offices hand count the ballots for those districts or machines. They then compare the hand count to the results that the voting system reported. Matching results confirm that the machines worked as intended when tabulating votes.

Risk-limiting audits use statistical methods to determine how many ballots to audit. Generally, the closer the race, the higher the number of ballots counted. This type of audit also confirms that the machines worked as intended and can provide statistical confidence that election officials certified or will certify the correct election outcome.

Many jurisdictions allow the public to observe election audits to increase voter confidence. Some jurisdictions publish audit reports, explaining the audit process and outcomes.

News Angle: This is one part of the process that receives very little attention, but is worth reporting on, if only to alleviate any voter concerns about the legitimacy of the election. What, if any, problems were revealed and how will those problems be addressed? Could they have had any impact on the results? Find out how much of the audit process is open to the media in your jurisdiction, who will conduct it and how.

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