Our View: Find ways to count absentee ballots quickly
Picture this scenario: It is late on Nov. 3, and President Donald Trump leads in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the same three states that put him over the top in 2016 — based on the votes cast in person on Election Day.
With his big lead, Trump declares victory. Then, beginning the next day, as early votes cast by mail start to come in, his lead starts to plunge. He screams bloody murder and says the election is being stolen. He provided even more cause for concern this week when he declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
Given Trump’s savage and unfair attacks on mail balloting so far, this scenario is not so far-fetched, particularly because more Democrats than Republicans are expected to vote absentee during this pandemic election. For that reason, states and news organizations need to make clear that voters might not get instant gratification on election night. But it is also important for states to be as expeditious as possible in their counts.
Unfortunately, a number of states have tied their hands with overly restrictive laws preventing election workers from getting a head start. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the three crucial battleground states cited above — plus Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, West Virginia and Wyoming — prevent poll workers from counting, or even processing, ballots until Election Day.
The shortsightedness of this policy was evident in New York’s primaries this year, when poll workers took weeks to determine who had won some key legislative and congressional races.
Only one state, South Carolina, has changed its laws to allow a faster count, but it applies only to the 2020 election. The legislatures of Michigan and Pennsylvania are in session and could easily change their laws. Indeed, Michigan’s Senate last week passed a measure doing just that. The state House should follow suit.
Pennsylvania is in particular need of some advanced time to process ballots. Three factors — its experience in the primaries; the departure of election officials in a number of counties, according to NBC News; and a complex mail balloting process that requires two envelopes — point to a potentially arduous vote-counting process.
One positive is that most states do allow early votes to be processed early, so while results in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin might lag, they might come in much faster in nearby states such as Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio, helping to put the brakes on premature victory declarations.
Florida, moreover, could be the opposite of the problematic Midwest states. It has long had a tradition of massive early voting — both in person and by mail — which accounted for 70% of the total in 2016.
This year, with a pandemic altering people’s behavior, that percentage could be higher. And with Democrats making a push to vote by mail, it is quite possible that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden could take an early lead thanks to the early vote in the all important Sunshine State.
In any event, it is vital that states do their job and that voters, politicians, journalists and others keep their cool, knowing that the results may take some time.