Making sure all ballots are counted: What happens after polls close Election Day

MADISON, Wis. -Many people are counting down the hours until Election Day is over, but for poll workers and clerks, much of the work is just getting started once polls close.

Starting at 7 a.m. Tuesday, poll workers can start processing absentee ballots – anywhere from 300 to nearly 4,000 per polling place in Madison, according to City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl. The hope is to finish that process by 8 p.m. when the polls close.

At that point, poll workers will make sure everyone waiting to vote in-person will get the opportunity and that no one else joins the lines. Then they must ensure that every vote gets counted.

“Each polling place has a checklist. It’s very long,” Witzel-Behl said. “Even though some of these chief inspectors have run elections for decades, they still use the checklist single time just to make sure nothing’s missed, because it’s that important.”

The process includes verifying the running count of ballots on the tabulator equals the number of voters signed into the poll book – a process also done on the hour throughout the day. Workers will check that the absentee ballot delivery bag is empty, along with the tabulator’s emergency bin.

Poll workers compare both copies of the poll list as the polls close to make sure they match. One goes to the city clerk, the other to the county clerk.

“Are all the ballots counted? Once they’re certain they are, they’ll run the results through the tabulator,” Witzel-Behl said.

Poll workers print paper results tapes. One copy will go to the city clerk and one to the county clerk.

“We have a paper trail for all our votes,” Witzel-Behl said. “And then we have a paper trail for the results.”

Unofficial results are encrypted and transferred to the county clerk via modem before being posted online. The city clerk’s office checks those posted results against the paper tapes.

The ballots are kept secure, in a bag sealed with tamper-evident tape.  The bags have a unique serial number, documented in the polling place’s Inspectors’ Statement, which is reviewed and signed by all poll workers.

“This is the record of everything that took place and evidence we need after election day to determine that these are indeed the ballots cast at the polls on election day,” Witzel-Behl said.

The process itself isn’t kept under wraps. Voters can see it themselves on Election Day.

“While these ballots are being sealed in the bag and the poll workers are checking to make sure all the ballots are being counted, anyone can be there to observe what is taking place,” she said. “That’s all done in the open.”

At the end of the night, the polling location’s chief inspector will return the Election Day documentation, results tapes and the tabulator memory stick to the city clerk’s office.

Even then, the work continues. At 4 p.m. the Friday after the election, the city of Madison board of canvassers meets to count provisional ballots and review all the Election Day paperwork to make sure its legitimate.