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Election Day Could Become Election Week

States of Crisis with Dan Vock
Election Day Could Become Election Week
By Daniel C. Vock • Issue #14 • View online
Welcome back to “States of Crisis,” where we try to give you a glimpse of what’s next in state policy during these tumultuous times.
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How Elections Officials Are Hoping to Prepare Americans for a Long Vote Count in November
Election Day is still three months away, but with this year’s campaign season turning out to be unlike any other in recent history, many experts are warning that the night of the election could be a far different experience than people expect, too.
Ben Smith, a media columnist for The New York Times, raised an alarm earlier this week that media organizations are not prepared for a drawn-out process for getting elections returns. Because so many voters are expected to use mail-in ballots, the process of counting them could take days or even weeks. That could be awkward for TV networks that plan their traditional night-of coverage, and, in a worst-case scenario, could undermine voters’ confidence in the ultimate election results.
But it’s not just the media that will have to help the public understand how the traditional Election Night might this year become Election Week. Election administrators are also considering steps they can take to maintain voter confidence even if tallying the final results takes a lot longer this year.
Wisconsin’s unique situation
During the Wisconsin presidential primary this April, voters and the media got a taste of one of the most extreme options available for delayed results.
Because of a federal court order, elections officials did not release any vote totals until nearly a week after the polls closed. The rare order came after a flurry of last-minute court battles over whether the election should be delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The courts put a hold on election officials even counting ballots, so that last-minute mail-in ballots that were sent amid the confusion would be included in the final tally.
But Wisconsin did not use the same approach in a special election in May and does not plan to use it in its primary election on Tuesday or the general election in November.
“Holding the ballots is one option,” said Doug Chapin, the director of election research at the Fors Marsh Group, a consulting firm. “But it is probably the least desirable option, especially because of the pressure that the media and the campaigns will put on folks.”
Push for early processing
Another measure that election officials in some states can take is to start processing mail-in ballots before Election Day, even if they don’t count them until the polls close.
There is a lot of work that has to get done before a mail-in ballot can get fed into a tabulator. The exact process varies by state, but workers generally have to pull the ballot out of one or two envelope; check the signature or other identifying information; make sure the ballot that is in the envelope matches the ballot the election authorities sent to that voter; verify that the voter didn’t also try to vote in person; flatten the ballot and prepare to feed it into a tabulator.
When you consider that some jurisdictions could be handling thousands of mail-in ballots, all of that takes time.
“If you aren’t able to start before Election Day … you’re not just talking about waiting until 3 a.m. as opposed to midnight,” for results, Chapin said, “you’re looking at like waiting until Friday instead of Election Night for big jurisdictions.”
But legislatures in several states have resisted giving the election authorities extra time. Chapin said many lawmakers worry about the possibility that one of their opponents would get an unfair advantage if they knew before Election Day what the results were from absentee ballots. That’s why, Chapin said, many local officials stress that they wouldn’t even count the ballots before Election Day, just get them ready to be counted quickly.
Groups of both county clerks and municipal clerks have pressed the issue in Michigan, but have so far been unsuccessful.
Barb Byrum, a Democrat who is the clerk of Ingham County (which includes Lansing), said election administrators in the state from both parties have supported the extra processing time, but the Republicans who control the legislature there have not let the measure go forward.
She said Sen. Ruth Johnson, a Republican who previously served as Michigan’s secretary of state, has repeatedly cast doubts on the mail-in voting process. Michigan voters approved a change in 2018 that made it possible for people to request absentee ballots without providing an excuse, and Michigan’s current secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, has tried to promote the use of those absentee ballots.
“I look forward to the Michigan Legislature to actually doing their job and passing this legislation,” Byrum said. “It is high time that election administrators are listened to when they ask the legislature for flexibility when it comes to processing and carrying out our elections.”
A similar fight is occurring in Wisconsin, where Milwaukee and other big cities have pushed the Republican-led legislature to allow them to start processing mail-in ballots a day before Election Day. There, too, the proposal never gained traction.
But the most extreme case might be Maryland, where election administrators have to wait until the day after Election Day to start counting absentee ballots.
Preparing the public
Of course, the biggest question for the public come November is going to be the results of the presidential race. Because of that, some jurisdictions will face more intense scrutiny than others.
“It’s all going to depend on the [election] margins and the proportions of mail versus in-person voting, which are very hard to predict,” said David Becker, the executive director for the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research.
“This is not going to be as big of an issue in California, because the margin of victory in the presidential race is usually in the double digits,” he said. “The media will probably call California not long after 8 p.m. Pacific, even though a tiny percentage of the votes will have been counted. But in states like Michigan or Pennsylvania, that’s obviously not going to be very likely.”
Becker said that, even though every state will probably see record use of mail-in ballots this year, it is still hard to predict just how many voters will use that option.
“People who tend to vote by mail are people who are more familiar with the process and more frequent voters, because voting by mail is voting without a safety net,” he said.
A person who uses a mail-in vote has to be confident that she knows how to request an absentee ballot, knows how to fill out the envelope outside the ballot, knows how to fill out the ballot itself and can get the ballot back to the election office in time to be counted.
But presidential elections don’t just draw the party faithful like off-year elections do; they draw the broadest range of voters, including those who aren’t familiar with the elections process, Becker noted. “These are going to be the voters who are much less likely to choose options of voting where they don’t have a safety net,” he said.
Because the speed of election returns will depend so much on how many mail-in ballots need to be counted, one step several elections agencies plan to take is to publish how many mail-in ballots have been returned. That gives the public a sense of how much the vote tallies can change.
In fact, Wisconsin already publishes reports every day detailing how many absentee ballots have been requested, sent to voters and returned to election authorities. The state even breaks down the information by county, said Reid Magney, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Magney added that one of the most important things local elections officials can do to speed up election results is to recruit enough poll workers to staff their precincts. In most areas of Wisconsin, absentee ballots are counted at the local polling places, so they need enough volunteers to both help people who are voting in person and to start processing absentee ballots.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has called out the National Guard several times this year already to assist with elections. But local officials shouldn’t depend on that intervention, Magney said.
“You cannot count on the Guard to always be there, because they may have other emergencies they’re responding to,” he said. “Clerks need to be make sure they are recruiting and training poll workers for November.”
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Daniel C. Vock

A pandemic. Recession. Civil unrest. State leaders are grappling with several enormous crises all at once. We explore how they're responding.

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