EXPLAINER: How does election certification usually work?

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In normal times, the certification of election results is a routine process that doesn’t get much attention. But these are not normal times.

As part of an ongoing series of attacks on the integrity of the election, President Donald Trump and his Republican allies are trying to stop the formal certification of results in some of the states where he lost — mostly by making unsubstantiated claims of fraud.

While most of their legal claims have failed, a high-profile incident in Michigan’s largest county this week shows how easily the process can get sidetracked.


After an election, local officials count ballots, review the tallies to make sure they match the votes cast, and check that people who cast provisional ballots because of some problem at the polls did so legally.

The local elections office then sends the final results to a board for certification. Such boards are typically bipartisan, their members either elected or appointed by county leaders. Barring an obvious problem with the count that could change the result of the election, the board then approves the vote tallies before sending them to the state for final certification. That’s usually done by a state canvassing board, the secretary of state or a small group that might include the governor and other state officials.

From there, federal law requires governors to prepare official certificates to report the popular vote in their states. These documents are often signed by the governors and must carry the seal of the state. A copy is sent to the archivist of the United States.


In an extraordinary move Tuesday night, two Republican members on Michigan’s Wayne County Board of Canvassers voted against certifying of the county’s votes — then abruptly reversed course amid heavy criticism.

Explaining the initial vote, a Republican member of the Wayne County board said the number of absentee ballots cast did not match voter records in the majority-Black city of Detroit.

But a Democrat on the board noted the issues were the result of routine “human error,” and the Republican’s claim drew complaints of racism from Democrats and election experts who also noted there has been no sign of widespread voting fraud in Michigan or elsewhere.

And the results weren’t even close: President-elect Joe Biden beat Trump in Wayne County by a more than 2-to-1 margin and won Michigan by 146,000 votes, according to unofficial results.


Even though the Wayne County votes were certified in the end, the incident is likely to cast more doubt about the election’s legitimacy among Trump’s supporters. It also could help galvanize Republicans elsewhere to look for ways to delay making Biden’s victory official.