Our View: Find ways to count ab­sen­tee bal­lots quickly

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS -

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.

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