Vote-Count Wait Unfolds in States That Ignored Peers’ Lessons
(Bloomberg) -- Much of the delay in vote counting that President Donald Trump has seized upon to cast a shadow over the election outcome could have been avoided if more states processed mailed ballots before Election Day, as practiced in battleground Florida and elsewhere.
That would be “an easy, obvious, nonpartisan reform,” said Michael Morley, an election law scholar at Florida State University. “We’d have results much sooner from those jurisdictions and far less of a chance for post-election shifts in apparent outcome.”
More than 90 million U.S. citizens requested mailed ballots and 65 million had returned them by Election Day Nov. 3, according to the U.S. Election Project early-vote tracker. The surge, roughly double in volume from four years ago, came as states eased rules to help voters avoid exposure to the coronavirus. Voter turnout reached historic levels.
In Florida, votes cast by mail were loaded into counting equipment as the ballots arrived so computers could spit out results almost as soon as polls closed at 7 p.m. Trump’s win in the state was declared that night.
But other states still operate under laws written when mailed ballots arrived in a trickle and not a deluge. They require election officials to put the ballots aside until Election Day, in some cases after Republicans blocked efforts to allow earlier processing.
In Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, that meant mailed ballots piled up at election offices without being opened or loaded into counting machines, with the exception of limited processing in some Michigan localities on Nov. 2.
In those states, as well as still-contested Georgia, counting of mailed ballots began on Tuesday. Michigan and Wisconsin were declared for Biden on Wednesday, and in the other states counting continued for days without a declared winner. Trump, his margins shrinking as counting went on, sued in several states and on Thursday tweeted, simply, “STOP THE COUNT!”
“We were winning in all the key locations by a lot actually, and then our numbers started miraculously getting whittled away in secret,” Trump told reporters at the White House, alleging fraud without providing evidence. “I told everybody these things would happen.”
His opponent, Democrat Joe Biden, counseled patience.
The turmoil reflected states’ incomplete adjustment to the new pattern of massive mail-in voting, said Michael McDonald, the University of Florida professor who runs the U.S. Elections Project vote tracker.
“The election laws and infrastructure were really designed for a much smaller mailed electorate,” McDonald said.
Not allowing processing of ballots well before Election Day “was clearly a political decision,” McDonald said. “It gives Trump the leverage, the opportunity, to disparage the late counting of the ballots.”
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, blamed the state’s delayed results on lawmakers. She said she and local election officials pleaded with the state legislature for 18 months to allow for pre-processing of mail-in ballots. Republicans hold the majority in Michigan’s legislature.
“Our state legislature chose not to make that change to our laws and here we are in Michigan where our counting process is continuing long after the polls have closed,” Benson said.
Pennsylvania expanded mail-in voting last year and counties pleaded for time to process ballots early, but state Democratic and Republican leaders couldn’t agree on a deal.
Election experts say it’s normal and not a sign of a problem if states are still counting ballots after election night.
Still, there are ways to avoid excess heartburn.
Another step to avoid a late avalanche of ballots: “We can’t rely on the Postal Service to turn ballots around in a day,” said Tammy Patrick, senior adviser to the Democracy Fund, a Washington-based foundation that promotes fair elections.
Seven states let citizens request mailed ballots as late as the day before the election, setting up a certainty of missed deadlines to return the mailed vote, Patrick said. “We need to remedy that,” she said.
Democrats have said that operational changes put in place this year by Trump-appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy delayed the delivery of ballots too. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington ordered a reversal of some of those changes and daily updates on delivery times.
Postal service data provided to the judge showed an estimated 150,000 mail-in ballots were delivered to election officials across the country a day after the election and potentially too late to count in some states. The data didn’t show when the ballots were mailed by voters.
“The Postal Service is required by law to deliver all mail that is deposited in our system,” USPS spokesman David Partenheimer said in an emailed statement. “More than 97% of the ballots in question were delivered on-time pursuant to our service standards.”
Voting by mail could be on its way to wider acceptance, Benjamin Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said. The commission reported about 33 million ballots cast by mail during the last presidential election in 2016.
“Undoubtedly it will increase. Who knows by how much,” Hovland said. “Once voters have this experience, it’s one they like and want to keep doing.”
In North Carolina, 1 million people cast ballots by mail in the election that attracted more than 5 million votes, said Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
Typically, she said, between 3% and 5% of ballots are cast by mail. “We far exceeded that this election.”
“Historically that is not a voting method that North Carolinians have chosen,” Bell told reporters at a Nov. 4 press conference. But it was an unusual year with the pandemic and high overall voter turnout, she said.
Bell said she hopes that voters saw how smoothly the process went this year, despite the challenges, and consider it as a reliable option in future elections.
Nationwide, it’s not clear whether voting by mail increased turnout, or spread out voting over more days during this year’s election, which excited a high degree of interest, said McDonald, the University of Florida professor.
McDonald pointed to Texas, where voting by mail laws remained unchanged, yet still turnout including in-person early voting exceeded 100% of the level seen four years go.
“Even if the state didn’t expand mail voting, people were still finding a way to vote,” McDonald said.
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