Get Ready, America: COVID-19 May Deprive Us Of Quick Election Night Results

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April 23, 2020 6:00 a.m.
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What a more fitting 20th anniversary commemoration of the 2000 election debacle than a Nov. 3 election night during which Americans are told they won’t know the winner of the presidential race — and many other races — for several days, if not weeks.

That’s the scenario election officials are beginning to grapple with as they prepare for an election cycle where the number of ballots cast by mail will grow exponentially due to the pandemic.

They’re thinking through how to break the American psyche free of its addiction to instant election results blasted out on cable news and the obsessive live monitoring that happens on Twitter. They’re also considering what statutory changes they’ll need to push for to smooth out the process.

The handful of states that have experience with vote-by-mail elections are a lesson for how long tabulating the results can take. But the turnaround time for states and localities new to the system — where they’ll likely be short-staffed, inexperienced and without key equipment — could be even longer.

“It could be days before we know election results, and right now I think that’s one of the things that we need to be messaging,” Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R), whose state already does vote-by-mail, told TPM this week.

TV news networks build their entire election night programing around being able to declare the results, state-by-state, that evening. Wyman and other election officials with experience with large mail-in-balloting programs told TPM that they had become used to the mockery that comes when their jurisdictions take days rather than hours to push out results.

“Especially after the 2018 election, for example, there was all this criticism by people…who were saying, ‘Why can’t California, why can’t Arizona, why can’t Washington, get their act together and tell us who won these elections?” recalled Judd Choate, the director of elections in the vote-by-mail state of Colorado. “Well, because they’re processing ballots.”

But election officials need to be prepared for more than just flack from media pundits, these vote-by-mail veterans warn. The confidence of the American public in the election will be in jeopardy if any delay is perceived to be a sign of chaos rather than something that should be expected.

“Given the the current political atmosphere and the strong emotions that ride on the election, we know that, quite likely, the more time you take, the more likely you are to start being criticized or being accused of something being amiss,” said Jake Rollow, a spokesperson for Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D), told TPM.

Beyond the expectation-setting, there are other actions vote-by-mail experts recommend that election officials with less absentee voting experience consider. One is to buy more equipment, like high-speed tabulators and mail-sorting machines, that could speed up the process. But those purchases are costly, some of them in the seven-figures, and need to happen soon, given the potential for supply chain issues once Nov. 3 is closer.

Another is to push for administrative or legislative changes that can give election officials, who are overwhelmed by the influx of absentee ballots, more breathing room.

That’s particularly true in states that won’t let officials begin processing the ballots until Election Day morning. The procedure includes opening exterior and interior envelopes, matching the signature, sorting the ballots into piles, and running them through the tabulation machines.

In Michigan, where absentee voting was already expanding due to a constitutional amendment recently approved by voters, only a few processing steps can be done in advance. Even before the outbreak, the secretary of state was warning that election officials might not be able to produce results of the March 10 primary on the night of that election. Though ultimately there were no delays in the posting the primary results, her office is expecting the volume of mail-ballots to double in November’s election. The need to physically space out election workers because of the virus could also slow down the process, Benson’s spokesperson told TPM.

Similar alarm bells are ringing for Pennsylvania, another swing state that was pre-pandemic anticipating a surge in absentee voting because of a recent law change. The whole process of opening and counting ballots cannot begin until 7 a.m. Election Day morning.

Florida — a swing state where prior to the election, one-third of the electorate voted by mail — has a process that poses a challenge on the other side of Election Day. Election officials can start processing absentee ballots well before Election Day, but the deadline for certifying those results is the following Friday.

“If I was in Florida, I would be thinking, not only do I have to help my counties scale up for vote by mail, but I have got to figure out this post-election calendar,” Choate, the Colorado elections director said, while predicting that absentee voting could make up 60 or 70 percent of the ballots cast.

Steven Vancore,  spokesperson for the Broward County elections supervisor, said if absentee ballot voting increased by 10 percentage points, then there would be no additional delay in posting results. Any greater spike might require the purchase of a mail sorter which costs around $1 million, he said, as well as additional staffing.

“So preparing for that is not going to be easy,” he said, adding, “The job would be a lot easier if we didn’t have to get in the results like, you know, like an ESPN scoreboard.”

Key Coronavirus Crisis Links

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COVID-19 Tracking Project (updated data on testing and infections in the U.S.).
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