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MIT Technology Review

Vote count livestreams are here to stay

Sit back and enjoy the show as you watch election results get tallied.

November 4, 2020
image of woman counting vote in philadelphia livestream election 2020 PA vote tallyimage of woman counting vote in philadelphia livestream election 2020 PA vote tally
AP Photo/Matt Slocum

As the US election process wore on from Tuesday evening into Wednesday, multiple counties across the country are broadcasting the ballot counting process.

What it is: Given the closeness of the election, it’s not surprising that voters and candidates alike are nervous about how votes are being tallied. So officials across the country have taken a note from Twitch and Instagram by installing a camera in ballot counting rooms and livestreaming the whole thing. The hope is to combat allegations of possible fraud.

What are these livestreams like? Think less Twitch stream, more store surveillance video. The quality is often grainy, the audio is on mute, and the streams are, frankly, quite boring to watch. Many cities have opted for YouTube as their platform. Here’s what it looks like in Los Angeles:

Denver’s camera offers aerial shots of multiple areas:

Not all livestreams are on YouTube. Several municipalities have opted for home surveillance cameras; Arizona’s hotly watched Maricopa County uses Google’s Nest to keep an eye on the counting (you can watch here). Washington’s King County installed cameras not too different from store surveillance equipment (you can watch here). And Union County in New Jersey uses the Angelcam app, a cloud surveillance tool (you can watch here).

Arizona is a peek into the future of livestreaming vote counts. In 2019, Arizona’s state legislature passed a law that required election officials to “provide for a live video recording of the custody of all ballots while the ballots are present in a tabulation room in the counting center.”

Panda cam, this is not. While zoo livestreams have gained popularity as calming, escapist windows of cuteness, there are higher stakes here. Sure, watching election officials sift through and sort ballots might be some people’s definition of “soothing,” but the purpose—being transparent and ensuring the validity and accuracy of election results—is very different, and perhaps more nail-biting than comforting for viewers.

Why is it important? Vote tabulation was rarely considered something the public had to see, but during this year’s contentious election, voters and politicos alike worry about fraud to the extent that the authenticity of every vote and counting process is under scrutiny. (It bears repeating: studies have repeatedly shown that voter fraud is nearly nonexistent.) Election officials are hoping that these livestreams will ensure voter confidence and counter any fraud allegations.

Philadelphia is ground zero for vote livestreaming: In late October, the Trump campaign was shown to be engaging in voter intimidation in the city by videotaping voters as they dropped off their ballots at designated centers. Trump exacerbated the situation by suggesting that “bad things happen” in Philadelphia. The stakes were upped last Wednesday, when the Supreme Court ruled that mail-in ballots would count so long as they were postmarked by Election Day, even if they arrived later. Philadelphia’s role in what’s arguably the most contested state in the country is huge: the city leans Democrat and could push the state’s electoral votes toward Biden. It’s no surprise, then, that Philadelphia became the focus of intense scrutiny.

The Office of Philadelphia’s City Commissioners went on the offense on Tuesday evening:

As of publication, the livestream was still going on, with thousands of watchers:

Don’t be surprised if you see vote count livestreams in 2022—and beyond. This year’s election was historic in expanding absentee and mail-in voting options, resulting in record turnout. Even when voters feel it’s safe to vote in person, mail-in and absentee options will probably be here to stay. Livestreams are a cheap, easy way to help fight allegations of voter fraud and might be a first step in ensuring transparent and fair elections, all from the comfort of your couch.