Prior to election day:
- States run their nominating processes, and finalize the ballot seven weeks before election day.
- Ballots are printed and verified.
- Early voting runs from from five weeks until one week before election day. Ballots are placed in boxes, which are secured by well-known procedures, by the voters.
- Absentee ballots are issued starting five weeks and ending one week before election day. Ballots are accepted unconditionally until close of voting on election day, and provisionally based on postmark for a week after election day.
- Optical scan machines are configured, tested, and secured by one week before election day.1
- Applications by groups wanting access to the paper ballots during the four weeks after the election are accepted until one week before election day, and issued by the day before the election.2
- Voter rolls for polling places are generated.
- Scan machines are set up the day before election.
- Voting begins.
- A small random group of precincts (1 to 3 percent) are selected for hand counting.3
- Early and absentee ballots are scanned.
- Voting ends.
- Vote totals are read off the scan machines and reported, except where hand counting is being done.3
- If a machine fails, or if the number of write-in votes exceeds the votes for each of the other candidates, the precinct is counted by hand.
- The hand counts are reported.
- The hand counts are verified using the scan machines, if possible.
- The optical scan machines are inspected for tampering, and then moved to a central site or sites.
- Any failed scan machines are replaced with standby machines.
- A second random group of all precincts are hand-counted.
- The other precincts are verified by running the ballots through the scan machines again. If the number of write-in votes exceeds the votes for each of the other candidates, the precinct is counted by hand.
- The optical scan machines are re-inspected for tampering.
- If a recount is deemed necessary, a third random selection of precincts are counted by hand, and the rest are re-verified using the scan machines.
- Write-in votes are tabulated.4
- Challenges are considered for provisional in-person and absentee ballots.
- Paper ballots and optical scan machines are made available in controlled conditions for any pre-qualified group to examine.2
- Provisional in-person and absentee ballots are counted two business days before final results are issued.
- Provisional ballots are recounted one day before final results are issued.
- Final results are issued four weeks after the election.
- Scan machines are released for repair and reprogramming.
- Paper ballots are archived for 10 years, but can be viewed under controlled conditions by any member of the public.
1 - Machines of any sort are in no way necessary for successfully conducting an election. But Americans are impatient and like technological "fixes", so I've included optical scan machines.
2 - The point of permits is to prevent chaos during the post-election period (which may include a recount) while still allowing public access.
3 - A small group of precincts should be hand-counted on election night so that any gross discrepancies between hand and machine counts are detected immediately. It should be done before the totals are read off of the machine so that vote counters have no expectations of what the outcome might be.
4 - In almost every election, identifying and tabulating the write-in votes is a meaningless exercise, but for whatever reason it is done.
Updated 2012-11-08: Added more steps.
Updated 2012-11-12: Added more steps.