Having survived a crushing primary season where election infrastructure quickly had to be adapted for large-scale absentee voting, there’s one thing election officials are hoping for in the general election: that it’s not their jurisdiction that’s preventing the country from finding out who won the White House.
In states across the country, reporting the results from the pandemic-rocked elections in the spring and summer took days and even weeks longer than Americans are used to.
There are several different factors contributing to the delays. But it’s becoming hard to imagine the process of reporting results moving more quickly in November, when election officials are preparing for an even larger influx of mail-voting — in some places, five or ten times greater than what they’ve ever faced before.
“Even if we doubled our capacity to process and scan these ballots, then we’re still looking at a week,” Lee Soltysiak, the chief clerk of Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County, told TPM. “The world is going to be waiting on the outcome, and I don’t want our county to be in the way of that.”
The Philadelphia suburb presents the perfect example of many election officials’ biggest fears about November. Pennsylvania could be a decisive state in November, but it’s faced some of the steepest challenges in ramping up its capacity for mail-in voting.
Pennsylvania is not the only state where election officials are acknowledging a reality that, due to the influx of absentee voting, they could still be tabulating votes for several days after election night. Primaries in New York, Kentucky and elsewhere showed how widespread and multifaceted the obstacles are to reporting quick election results in the current circumstances.
Recent efforts by President Trump to question the legitimacy of an election that takes more than a day to call only further illustrates the pressure election officials are under.
“There’s an element of just those things that we know are going to be the case,” Ben Hovland, a member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, told TPM, “And setting the expectation and communicating that that is expected and normal and part of the process this year, and not necessarily something that’s ‘going on’ or some larger nefarious activity.”
‘There’s A Lot of Humanity Involved’
Election officials in several states are trying to figure out how to adapt their mostly manual process for counting mail-in ballots — which in previous years may have made up only a very small percentage of total votes — for an election where a far greater share of voters are now turning to the option to remain safe during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Kentucky is one such state. Before the outbreak, it only allowed absentee voting for a few limited reasons. Its June 23 primary avoided the catastrophe that some were expecting. But election officials from Kentucky’s two most populous counties told TPM that their infrastructure was stretched to the brink by the surge in mail ballots. The state relaxed its absentee voting restrictions for the primary but hasn’t said what it will do for the general.
Even with an emergency regulation that gave election officials a several weeks head-start to begin processing absentee ballots, county clerks in Fayette and Jefferson (home to Lexington and Louisville, respectively) had to limit the non-elections services their offices offer so they could focus their staff on pitching in on running the election. Both counties still needed the rest of the week after Election Day to finish counting.
“I don’t think at this time, there’s really any way we can do what we did in June for the November election, simply because the numbers — it would be impossible,” said Jordan Kelch, an official in the Jefferson County’s clerks office, who stressed that there will need to be more in-person voting than what there was for the primary. “We don’t have the infrastructure, we don’t have the manpower, we were in total overload. And we can’t continuously shut down our offices to accommodate that.”
The security measures involved in absentee voting make the system of processing those ballots work intensive — particularly in the states that don’t have large-scale experience with mail voting and don’t have the technology that experienced vote-by-mail states use to automate the process.
The signature verification — where a voter’s signature in the state’s records is matched with how she signed the ballot package — is a major timesuck, election officials said, but even the process of opening the ballots themselves was a daunting one.
“It’s not rocket science, but there’s a lot of humanity involved in the organizing and processing and scanning of those ballots,” Soltysiak, the Pennsylvania official said, recalling the 50 or so people who were working 12 hours a day to process the primary results.
‘A Very Solvable Problem’
The volume of the counting work aside, two key policy decisions made by states about absentee voting can further slow down the process, according to Hovland, the EAC commissioner. One is whether the election officials are allowed to start the processing of mail ballots before Election Day. The other is whether absentee ballots that arrive within a certain period after Election Day are still counted, assuming they meet the postmark requirements.
“If we’re going to allow people to postmark them by a particular date, then it only makes sense, you have to give it a few days to arrive. The results can’t be tabulated until that occurs,” said Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins, who estimated that a quarter of the 83,000 mail-in ballots his office received arrived the week of the primary.
New York’s ongoing primary debacle is an example of when those two elements combine into a perfect storm. Election officials were not allowed to begin counting absentee ballots until a week after Election Day. And, according to reports, a lapse in USPS operations led to thousands of ballots not being properly postmarked, and whether they’re being counted remains a murky question.
November’s presidential election is unlikely to hinge on New York. But swing states including Michigan and Pennsylvania have similar rules restricting the amount of absentee ballot processing work that can be done before Election Day.
Election officials have been lobbying state lawmakers to let the processing begin earlier.
“It’s the only way to get what everybody is going to want anywhere near election night,” Soltysiak said. “It’s a very solvable problem, which makes it frustrating to still be talking about it.”