I have read enough articles and threads to understand all of the idiosyncrasies about punching individual ballots. What I want to know how all of the votes get counted. It seems to be a pretty fast process. I am sure it differs by state but I would like to have just a general idea. Where do they go? Do poll workers just call them in somewhere?
In the case of punchcards, there are machines that run through them and count them. They usually run them through a few times to make sure they get the same numbers each time. In the case of big lever machines and electronic voting machines, they keep a running count and the results are available immediately. The poll workers call the results in to the state election board, and in the following days the board may choose to audit some or all of the precincts to confirm the counts.
How it works here in Minneapolis, MN:
We use optical scan ballots. You fill in little circles on a paper ballot, and then feed it thru an optical scanner machine that checks it (spits it back out if you did something wrong, like voting for 2 people at the same time) and then counts the votes. The counts are stored internally in the machine (and can always be recreated if the power goes out or something by re-scanning all the paper ballots).
At the end of election day, the election judges unlock a panel and use controls to instruct the machine to print out a paper adding-machine tape with all the results on it. The official printout is signed by the various election judges, at least 1 from each party. They can also print multiple copies for party observers to take with them.
The official copy is delivered (by at least 2 people, one from each party) to the City Clerks office in City Hall. There it is checked, and entered into a computer program. This program adds the results from all the precincts, and gives the final results. (It also generates data to update a webpage of the results. This webpage is refreshed with updated results all night as they come in from the precincts. At busy times, the webpage may change eveery couple of minutes.)
The City Clerk communicates these results electronically to the Secretary of State’s office, where they are added to results from other cities or counties, and update similar webpages for all offices in the state.
I believe all these electronic counts are “unofficial”; the final results are certified by each local board of elections, and those are the official results. That’s often several days later. (We had one office that nobody filed for. There were nearly 30,000 votes for that,all write-ins, that have to be hand counted. That may take a while!)
Newer models of the optical scanner counting machines do have a phone connection available, and can report report results right to the clerks office via that, faster than the printed tape method. I believe they can even report partial results during election day, but that isn’t used here. (Except maybe for reporting the total number of ballots voted; that is used to determine if any polling place is in danger of running out of paper ballots. I’m not sure if the machines report this by phone, or if the election judges just moniter it and call the Clerks office if they foresee running out.)
I believe that most of the machines used in our city are the model with phone connections. But some of our polling places do not have a phone outlet in the polling room, so they can’t use the phone reporting method.
All the actual paper ballots go into locked boxed inside the scanning machine (2, 1 for regular ballots and 1 for any with write-ins). These boxes are delivered to the City Clerks office (again, by at least 2 people, one from each party).
For recounts, they are just run through another scanning machine, and the count compared to the first count. Repeated until they agree. The City Clerk keeps one carefully-tuned machine in their office, and will re-count the paper ballots on that whenever needed. In fact, it’s so easy to do, they do it whenever the vote is at all close, or there is any question about the totals (like if a traditionally republican precinct reports high democratic results, for example).
What t-bonham described is almost exactly how it is handled in Michigan, too, except in many places valid write-ins are tallied at the precincts and that information is communicated (handwritten) along with the tallies from the ballots.