The Voting Process: Your Questions, Answered

Jolene Gianone, Co-News and Special Projects Editor

November 3rd marked Election Day 2020, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were declared winners four days later on November 7th. These results, in addition to the seeds of doubt being cast upon the election’s legitimacy, have left many United States citizens with questions regarding the voting process. Below are five of the most common post-election questions, along with their answers.

Q1: What is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College, as established in Article II of the Constitution, is an assembly of 538 members whose sole purpose is to elect the president and vice president. Each of the 538 electors represents one U.S. senator or representative (including three electors representing the District of Columbia). The number of electoral votes is equal to the number of congressional delegates that the state possesses.  


Q2: What is a provisional ballot?

A provisional ballot is a ballot cast when there is a question about a voter’s eligibility. These votes are generally kept to the side until the eligibility of the voter is determined by a board of elections within days of the election. General reasons for doubt regarding a voter’s eligibility (and the subsequent need to cast a provisional ballot) include:

  • Their name not appearing on the registration list
  • Not presenting/having a form of ID as required by the individual’s state 
  • Claiming that their absentee ballot has either not been received or casted 
  • Their address or name has changed, but is not reflected in their registration information
  • Their signature has changed, but is not reflected in state records 

Still, the use of provisional ballots varies state by state. Additional state-specific reasons for provisional ballots include:

  • Same day registration (Montana)
  • Incorrectly filling out the ballot and needing a new one (Ohio)
  • Not using an issued absentee ballot (Rhode Island)
  • Voting outside the voter’s jurisdiction (Illinois and Utah)


Q3: How does the Associated Press (AP) determine  when to call the race in a state?

Both AP race callers and the Decision Desk utilize a combination of analytical tools, including AP’s vote count and AP VoteCast, collaboration with analysts of statewide races, and data regarding ballot type, vote count, and county-by-county live results to determine if a trailing candidate can catch the leading candidate. If not, the race can be called. In some states, with the statewide historical pattern leaning significantly one way, the AP will use results from AP VoteCast to confirm the winner right after the polls close. However, for those elections in which results are too close to call (all outstanding ballots aside from provisional and late absentee ballots have been counted with no clear winner), the process is different. If the margin between the top two candidates is less than 0.5 percentage points (thus legally eligible for a recount) and the count is ongoing, AP may not call the race, but will refer to it instead as “too early to call.” According to AP, “AP’s race callers and Decision Desk are driven entirely by the facts…Only when AP is fully confident a race has been won – defined most simply as the moment a trailing candidate no longer has a path to victory – will we make a call” (AP). 


Q4: What is voter fraud?

Voter fraud, as defined by the United States government, refers to the process of “interfering with the results of an election by doing illegal things that affect the vote’s outcome” (USAgov). Forms of voter fraud may include bribery, illegal voter registration, voter impersonation, vote buying, false advertising with regards to the election date or how to vote, and tampering with voting machines or ballot boxes. Voter fraud (including voting by mail) is extremely rare, with only 1,298 proven cases of voter fraud in the past 20 years and over 250 million votes (Heritage Foundation). 


Q5: What is the difference between an absentee ballot and a mail-in ballot? Are they new this election?

Though these terms are used interchangeably, there is technically a difference between absentee and mail-in ballots. 


An absentee ballot is a ballot cast by a voter who is or will be  “absent” from their local polling facility on Election Day. To get an absentee ballot, a registered voter must first request one through their state government and, if their request is approved (i.e. they provide a valid reason for their request, their request has been filled out correctly, and there is no falsified information), the voter can then complete, sign, and return this ballot by mail. Absentee ballots are not new; in fact, absentee voting started during the Civil War for troops on the battlefields.


A no-excuse absentee ballot is similar to a normal absentee ballot, but, in the voter’s request for the ballot, a reason need not be provided. New Jersey is one of twenty two states (not including the District of Columbia) that permit this method of voting. 


A mail-in ballot is a ballot cast by mail in states where all-mail voting occurs. In other words, in the five states where voting is conducted entirely via mail, registered voters automatically receive a ballot by mail before Election Day to be filled out and returned via mail or dropbox. While mail-in ballots are also not new to this year’s election, the process of all-mail voting is relatively new, with Oregon being the first state to fully conduct elections in this manner starting as recently as 2000. 


The state breakdown:

  • Absentee Ballots: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia
  • No-excuse Absentee Ballots: Alaska, Arizona, California, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
  • Mail-in ballots: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington


By a record-shattering 74 million votes, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have won the presidency and vice presidency. Still, new developments are made daily, as results continue to be challenged and states certify their election results ahead of December 14, the date the Electoral College is set to meet.