Mail vot­ing could de­lay pres­i­den­tial re­sults

Del­uge of bal­lots might take weeks to count

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Joey Gar­ri­son

WASH­ING­TON – Ken­tucky won’t have final re­sults of last week’s state pri­mary un­til Tues­day. New York could take twice as long. In Penn­syl­va­nia, the state’s largest city, Philadel­phia, was still tal­ly­ing mail- in bal­lots nearly two weeks after its June 2 pri­mary.

The un­prece­dented vol­ume of mailin bal­lots dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­demic has pro­duced hic­cups in some state pri­maries and op­er­ated smoothly in oth­ers.

But one thing is con­stant: States have shat­tered turnout records for pri­maries be­cause of the del­uge of mail- in bal­lots, forc­ing elec­tion officials to need days, even weeks, to count all the votes.

Fast- for­ward to the Nov. 3 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, when all 50 states and the District of Columbia will vote the same day. Many states are ex­pected to turn to mass mail- in vot­ing again but this time for a pres­i­den­tial race that will draw sig­nificantly greater turnout than pri­maries.

In the race be­tween Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Demo­cratic pre­sump­tive nom­i­nee Joe Bi­den, down to races for Congress and even local con­tests, vot­ing ex­perts have a warn­ing: Un­less there’s a clear and de­ci­sive win­ner, brace for an elec­tion week or weeks, not an elec­tion night.

“I think ‘ weeks’ is po­ten­tially be­ing gen­er­ous,” said Joe Burns, a Repub­li­can elec­tion at­tor­ney for the Lawyers

Democ­racy Fund.

Burns, a for­mer elec­tion official with the New York State Board of Elec­tions, said it can al­ready takes weeks to count mail- in bal­lots in states where just 5% vote ab­sen­tee. “Well, if you go and in­crease the ab­sen­tee bal­lots by a fac­tor of 10, you would think it would take that much longer.”

He added: “If you’re a can­di­date, if you’re an elec­tion lawyer, don’t make too many plans post elec­tion.”

A ‘ post- elec­tion cri­sis’?

The me­dia likes to crown pres­i­den­tial win­ners as soon as a can­di­date clears the 270- del­e­gate thresh­old. Tele­vi­sion net­works pro­jected Trump the win­ner of the 2016 elec­tion around 2: 45 a. m. ET. Barack Obama was de­clared the win­ner on elec­tion nights in both his vic­to­ries, around 11 p. m. ET in 2008 and 11: 20 p. m. ET in 2012.

The most drawn- out – and con­tro­ver­sial – elec­tion in U. S. his­tory was in 2000, when tele­vi­sion net­works de­clared Ge­orge W. Bush the win­ner on elec­tion night, only to re­vert to “too close to call” as votes trick­led in from Florida. The con­test effec­tively ended five weeks later on Dec. 12 when the U. S. Supreme Court halted a vote re­count in Florida.

Elec­tion ex­perts worry a pro­longed out­come this year could set the stage for greater con­tro­ver­sial – po­ten­tially at­tempts by can­di­dates to in­val­i­date the re­sults – be­cause of the rag­ing fight over vote- by- mail.

Trump has ac­cused Democrats of seek­ing to “rig” and “steal” the elec­tion by sup­port­ing ex­panded vote- by- mail dur­ing the pan­demic, which he has slammed with­out ev­i­dence as fraud­u­lent. A cam­paign fundrais­ing email last week called Democrats “thieves.”

Bi­den has said he has won­dered whether the pres­i­dent would will­ingly leave the White House if he loses and that his “sin­gle great­est con­cern” is that Trump will “steal the elec­tion” by lim­it­ing voter ac­cess.

“It is ex­tremely un­likely we’re go­ing to have final re­sults on elec­tion night,” said Lawrence Nor­den, di­rec­tor of the Elec­tion Re­form Pro­gram for the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice at the New York School of Law. He called it a “differ­ent kind of elec­tion this year” that could mean at least sev­eral days to count all the votes.

“This is a real con­cern be­cause there’s so much dis­in­for­ma­tion around the elec­tion that peo­ple will use that to dele­git­imize the count. It’s why I think it’s so im­por­tant ( for) peo­ple to know ahead of time that’s go­ing to be the re­al­ity. It doesn’t mean that there’s any­thing in wrong. It means that we’re do­ing our jobs to make sure the votes are counted ac­cu­rately.”

Larry Di­a­mond, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Stan­ford Univer­sity and fel­low at the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion, said a close elec­tion – and the pub­lic not un­der­stand­ing that it might take days or more to count mail- in bal­lots – could lead to an elec­tion fight like the United States has never seen.

“We’ve re­ally got sig­nificant scope for an un­prece­dented post- elec­tion cri­sis in the United States,” Di­a­mond said.

How states han­dle the load

Thirty- four states and Wash­ing­ton, D. C., al­ready al­lowed all reg­is­tered vot­ers to vote by mail with­out an ex­cuse be­fore the COVID- 19 pan­demic. Thir­teen states took ac­tion to send mail­bal­lot ap­pli­ca­tions in pri­maries this year and in some cases for the Novem­ber elec­tion.

In sev­eral of the 16 states where vot­ers must pro­vide an ex­cuse to re­ceive an ab­sen­tee bal­lot – be­ing over 65 years old, out of town dur­ing Elec­tion Day or in the mil­i­tary, for ex­am­ple – con­cerns about the coro­n­avirus pan­demic now qual­ify as a rea­son. Most states made the change only for pri­mary elec­tions and are wait­ing to see whether to ex­tend to Novem­ber.

Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Ore­gon, Utah and Wash­ing­ton – con­duct elec­tions en­tirely by mail by send­ing bal­lots to all reg­is­tered vot­ers. Cal­i­for­nia will do the same for the Novem­ber elec­tion.

“My con­cern is it’s go­ing to take prob­a­bly the en­tire month of Novem­ber for most states to count their mail- in or ab­sen­tee bal­lots, and we may not know the re­sults of the elec­tion un­til the end of Novem­ber,” said Kim Wy­man, Repub­li­can sec­re­tary of state of Wash­ing­ton, which has con­ducted elec­tions by mail since the 1991.

By state law, Wash­ing­ton can start pro­cess­ing mail- in bal­lots 10 days be­fore Elec­tion Day, giv­ing coun­ties a head- start to go through sev­eral time­con­sum­ing steps to ver­ify au­then­tic­ity. Early mail bal­lots typ­i­cally ac­count for half the over­all vote in Wash­ing­ton. The early re­sults are an­nounced after vot­ing ends. But be­cause votes post­marked on or near Elec­tion Day can ar­rive days later, it’s nor­mal for vote- by- mail elec­tions to take longer.

Wy­man said she’s wor­ried about the ad­di­tional bur­den on states where ab­sen­tee vot­ing isn’t as wide­spread his­tor­i­cally. These states will still be re­quired to main­tain in- per­son vot­ing while build­ing ca­pac­ity for mail- in vot­ing with more equip­ment and per­son­nel. This in­cludes hav­ing enough scan­ners, bal­lot sorters and sig­na­ture ver­ification ma­chines, as well as space to count the bal­lots.

“They are go­ing to need to ramp this up,” Wy­man said, call­ing on Congress to al­lo­cate more money for elec­tions. “And now we’re down to four months.”

State law changes are key

Am­ber McReynolds, CEO of the Na­tional Vote at Home In­sti­tute, said hav­ing enough equip­ment won’t help much with pro­duc­ing timely re­sults un­less states re­write laws al­low­ing them to be­gin pro­cess­ing mail- in bal­lots ahead of Elec­tion Day.

Pres­i­den­tial bat­tle­grounds such as Penn­syl­va­nia, Wis­con­sin and Michi­gan are among states con­sid­er­ing leg­is­la­tion that would al­low elec­tion officials to get a head start on pro­cess­ing ab­sen­tee bal­lots.

“By not al­low­ing that pro­cess­ing in ad­vance they’re also cre­at­ing a back­log and a stress on in- per­son vot­ing that re­ally isn’t nec­es­sary,” said McReynolds, who pre­vi­ously served as di­rec­tor of elec­tions in Den­ver, where elec­tions are con­ducted en­tirely by mail. “If they want to make sure their states aren’t the ones be­ing waited on for re­sults, they should make that ad­just­ment as soon as pos­si­ble.”

In Penn­syl­va­nia, 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple voted by mail for its June 2 pri­mary – nearly 18 times the 84,000 who did in 2016, ac­count­ing for more than half the over­all vote. It was the state’s first statewide elec­tion with no- ex­cuse ab­sen­tee vot­ing. His­tor­i­cally, only 4% of Penn­syl­va­ni­ans vote by mail. A state au­di­tor race wasn’t de­cided un­til 10 days after the elec­tion as coun­ties tal­lied all the mail bal­lots.

All Penn­syl­va­nia vot­ers will again be al­lowed to vote by mail in Novem­ber.

Com­pli­cat­ing Penn­syl­va­nia’s abil­ity to finish count­ing votes in the pri­mary, ac­cord­ing to Wanda Mur­ren, a spokes­woman for the Penn­syl­va­nia Sec­re­tary of State office, six coun­ties, in­clud­ing Philadel­phia County, were granted an ex­tra week to count and re­port mail- in votes be­cause of protests over po­lice bru­tal­ity.

The state also had a spike in pro­vi­sional bal­lots from vot­ers who ar­rived at a polling site after they had pre­vi­ously re­quested mail bal­lots.

“We’re look­ing real closely at where things went most smoothly and where they didn’t, and what was the differ­ence,” Mur­ren said. “We al­ready know the equip­ment makes a huge differ­ence, the amount of staffing makes a huge differ­ence.”

Pub­lic aware­ness seen as cru­cial

In the com­ing months, vote- by- mail ad­vo­cates want to build pub­lic aware­ness on the po­ten­tial elon­gated elec­tion time­line.

“I know we like in­stant grat­ification, but we need to come to terms with the fact that if the elec­tion is close we will not have re­sults on Elec­tion Day this year and that’s okay,” said for­mer Repub­li­can Penn­syl­va­nia Gov. Tom Ridge, who now co- chairs SafeVote, a non­profit that is ad­vo­cat­ing for voteby- mail ex­pan­sion. “We should ex­pect an elec­tion week rather than Elec­tion Day.”

Oth­ers be­lieve more help is needed na­tion­ally for voter confidence if the out­come is in doubt for days or weeks.

Wil­liam Gal­ston, a se­nior fel­low for the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s Gov­er­nance Stud­ies Pro­gram, said in the “best of all pos­si­ble worlds” an elec­tion with a large share of mail- in bal­lots will have a sub­stan­tial gap be­tween Elec­tion Day and the final re­sults.

“What you need is not just bet­ter me­chan­ics, but also a very sub­stan­tial bi­par­ti­san lead­er­ship con­sen­sus declar­ing it­self in ad­vance op­posed to any efforts to dele­git­i­mate the elec­tion by ei­ther wide.”

He sug­gested as­sem­bling a panel with the likes of Repub­li­can Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, for­mer Demo­cratic Ma­jor­ity Leader Tom Daschle and even for­mer pres­i­dents.

“We’re go­ing to need an over­all canopy of le­git­imiza­tion in or­der to pre­vent a worst case sce­nario,” Gal­ston said.

Ex­perts worry that de­lays after Elec­tion Day on Nov. 3 could set the stage for at­tempts by can­di­dates to in­val­i­date re­sults. MEG VO­GEL/ USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

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