How do election scientists define a free and fair election?
What does it mean for an election to be considered free and fair? To start, it involves a tradeoff between accessibility and security.
What can I do to make sure my vote counts on Election Day?
One of the best things you can do is to vote early. Try to vote before Election Day if you can. Given concerns about the speed of mail delivery, consider dropping your absentee or by-mail ballot off in an official drop box if one is available in your area.
Also, take your time. If you vote in-person, make sure you see all of the ballot choices, and that the machine is accurately recording your choices. Whether you vote by mail or in person, always check your ballot before it goes into the tabulation box or before you put it in the envelope—just to make sure you're not making a simple mistake. In our experience it's the simple mistakes that trip voters up: skipping a race or inadvertently marking more candidates than you're allowed to mark in a given race or forgetting to sign your absentee ballot. Often, these simple mistakes can be avoided if you take your time, read the instructions, and check everything twice before returning your ballot.
Why does it seem to be taking longer to finalize election results, even with new voting technology?
We've seen an evolution of procedures and technologies, mostly aimed and expanding the franchise—providing more and better opportunities for people to register to vote and express their opinions on Election Day. But as we continue to see an evolution of technology, procedures, and administrative practices, we're also going to see some challenges. Remember that we're talking about a very complicated process.
One of the things we've come to appreciate in our research with the Voting Technology Project is just how much goes on behind the scenes to get people registered to vote; to verify and record their registration information; and then to provide voters the opportunity to securely, and in an accessible and simple manner, cast their ballots.
Once you vote, your ballot will likely end up in a securely sealed ballot box. When polls close, election officials at the polling place will break those seals and conduct an initial examination to reconcile all the ballot materials they've received. The ballots will then be securely transported to a central location. Some will go by car. Some may be delivered by law enforcement. Some, if they are coming from a remote location, may go by helicopter.
Many of those ballots are tabulated immediately. If you voted in person on Election Day or earlier, your vote is probably going to be tabulated that night or early the next day.
However, mail-in ballots that arrive later, or ballots that are cast provisionally on Election Day will take longer to count. Staff at the election office will confirm whether the voter is registered in their jurisdiction and that they haven't cast another ballot elsewhere. If those conditions are met, the ballot will be included. If those conditions aren't met, officials will investigate further.
That's one of the reasons it takes so much time. Election officials, especially here in California, are committed to making sure that all the ballots that are eligible to be counted are, in fact, counted.
In a related phenomenon, known as "blue shift," it has become increasingly common for vote totals to shift in favor Democratic candidates after polls close. This is, in part, because Democratic-leaning voters are more likely than Republicans to cast late-arriving votes by mail and to cast provisional ballots.
It is not unusual to see final results change, sometimes significantly, as legitimate ballots continue to be counted after Election Night.
—R. Michael Alvarez, Professor of Political and Computational Social Science
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