Both Team Red and Blue Should Line Up Behind Expedited Vote Counting
Neither will win by opposing sensible reforms, but the country will lose
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In an age of hyperpolarization, it can often feel like there are no viable bipartisan solutions. This is especially true for election laws, a highly contentious issue even in the best of times. But appearances can be deceiving. Not every question has high partisan valence, and often, compromise packages can be designed where both parties walk away with a win.
One example is the tediously slow pace of canvassing (i.e., counting the votes), one of the most dysfunctional aspects of America’s election system. In many states, results seem to trickle in for days or even weeks after election night. This fuels understandable frustrations and, as we’ve seen, it can also fuel dangerous conspiracy theories, such as the claim that Biden “stole” the 2020 election, aided by systematic malfeasance in vote counting by public officials. More broadly, it feeds into a sense of public distrust and disaffection with a core institution of liberal democracy—the electoral process and the idea of free and fair elections. In an era of growing partisanship and institutional mistrust, it is critical that we shore up the basic mechanisms of democracy and, in turn, diminish the fuel for populist discontent.
Although the 2020 election was held on a Tuesday, major media outlets did not call the election for Biden until Saturday. With the exception of the 2000 election, with its razor-thin margin of a few hundred disputed votes, this has not been the normal experience in presidential elections because the margin of victory has been big enough to call the winner on election night or the next day. Nor can all of the blame for the delayed 2020 result be placed on the unique circumstances of the pandemic, especially since indications are many voters have made a permanent switch to casting their ballots by mail. Even before the pandemic, voting habits were already trending in that direction, with more Americans opting for the convenience of casting a postal vote. And yet, plenty of states with high levels of absentee voting did not see the kind of slow counts that dragged in states such as Arizona and Nevada.
In a recent report for the Rainey Center, “Five Principles for Faster Vote Counting,” I examine the causes of this problem and offer some possible solutions. Crucially, these recommendations cut across the usual partisan assumptions, and involve a mix of policies, some more associated with Republican support and others with Democratic support. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, since reforms of this kind benefit everyone regardless of their politics. Encouragingly, there’s ample room in many states for a politically feasible deal that would make substantial improvements to the system.
The policy brief covers a number of nuts-and-bolts questions, such as how to verify a voter’s identity on absentee ballots (use ID numbers, not pseudo-scientific signature matching), and how legislatures should design rules for voting machines (set some important baselines, but don’t get too specific). But the most important question, and one that also best demonstrates the potential for bipartisan compromise, is on the basic rules for absentee votes: how these votes are handled after they are received, and the deadline for them to arrive.
Pre-Processing Is Crucial
No state appreciates the importance of getting elections right quite like Florida. After the Bush v. Gore fiasco in 2000, Florida quickly moved to adopt a bipartisan set of reforms. Today, as election junkies are well aware, Florida sets the gold standard for reporting election results quickly, accurately, and completely. In all but the most razor-thin of contests, an apparent winner can be determined on election night.
One aspect of Florida’s system, perhaps the single most important policy choice affecting how long canvassing takes, is the pre-processing of postal votes. This policy has only recently become more controversial in some quarters, such as when Republicans opposed it in Pennsylvania, but it shouldn’t be—after all it hasn’t stopped Florida from trending more red in recent years. It’s a sensible best practice and worries about potential leaks are misguided
Pre-processing is when everything necessary to count the votes is done before actually counting them on election day. This means opening the outer envelope (in states that use them), verifying the voter’s registration, conducting whatever applicable identity checks the state uses, and otherwise verifying that the ballot is facially valid and should be counted. In other words, it is doing the equivalent for mail votes what you would do in-person at the polling place before receiving and casting your ballot.
Pre-processing saves massive amounts of time when it comes to counting these votes, because all you’re left with is a stack of ballots ready to be fed into the counting machine. Pre-processing is also no threat to election integrity, as evidenced by how it is already safely practiced by most states, including many red states. In no election has there been any substantial leak of pre-processing information that could jeopardize the integrity or fairness of the election, as Republican critics claim.
Set a Deadline for the Receipt of Ballots
On the flip side is a policy Democrats have tended to oppose, but one that’s equally critical to getting election results counted quickly: adopting a receipt deadline for mail-in votes. The objection from the left that this amounts to voter suppression misses the mark, both in principle and in overstating the practical effect.
A receipt deadline requires votes cast by mail to arrive at the designated recipient (a county clerk or local board of elections as the case may be) by a certain deadline. Most often, this deadline is on election day. For obvious reasons, having all valid votes received by this date enables the count to proceed much faster than if votes are trickling in many days after election day.
In states with a receipt deadline, we do not see a massive number of ballots rejected for being late, nor any substantial effect hurting Democrats and boosting Republicans. In addition to several competitive purple states, a receipt deadline is already the law in some deep-blue states such as Vermont and Delaware, without controversy.
The alternative to a receipt deadline is a postmark deadline. This policy requires the counting of all votes that are merely postmarked by a certain date, most often election day. California and New York, for example, both say that votes postmarked by election day, but can arrive and be counted up to seven days later. This policy is the primary reason California and New York are among the slowest-counting states. Some states permit votes to come in as late as two weeks after election day (Illinois), or up to ten days later (Ohio, Maryland).
Even when the receipt deadline had been extended three days in Pennsylvania during the 2020 election, the number of votes affected were relatively few and insufficient to affect the outcome. For example, Erie County, PA, received only 130 ballots within that three day window, out of more than 136,000 votes cast.
As with anything else in life where a mailed item needs to arrive by a certain date, it is incumbent upon voters to get their votes turned in on time. At most, a day or two of leeway should be provided for possible delays in the mail, but no longer. At the end of the day, that is not an unreasonable burden on voters, and we have ample evidence that voters have no difficulty complying.
Finding The Right Balance
Just like many red states already conduct pre-processing, several blue states already require absentee ballots to arrive by election day. On both sides, concerns about these policies having a dramatic partisan impact are overblown. While the parties understandably want to fight for every advantage, there are diminishing returns in fighting over a very small number of affected votes. No system is perfect and trade-offs are inevitable. The reality is they have negligible—if any—effect on election results themselves, but a substantial impact on the speed and ease of finding out what those results are.
The use of pre-processing can mitigate the lack of an election day receipt deadline, and vice versa. But the ideal policy to minimize delay after the polls close is the combination of both: all votes must arrive by election day or shortly thereafter, and election administrators should pre-process postal votes so they are ready to count on election day.
Even in today’s extraordinarily partisan environment, reforms to improve the speed of canvassing can address concerns on both sides of the aisle. For those on the right worried about election integrity, faster results lessen both the opportunity for fraud and perhaps more importantly, the perception of possible fraud. And for those on the left worried about election subversion, it is clear that the protracted process of calling the 2020 election played a huge part in the later attempts to overturn the results. Nobody benefits from not knowing who won an election for a week or more, and legislators from both parties can and should make sure that doesn’t happen in the future.
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