Editorial: The day we've been waiting for is not election day

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Election workers in Colorado open mail-in ballots.
Election workers in Colorado open mail-in ballots. (Marc Piscotty / Getty Images)

Welcome to election day 2020, a day so many of us have been waiting for so impatiently, and for so long.

Yet we may have more waiting to go before there's a clear winner in the presidential contest, let alone California's 12 state propositions and legislative races. And that's a good thing, regardless of what you may hear to the contrary.

Granted, it's conceivable that President Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden could score landslide wins in enough states to lock up the 270 electoral votes needed to claim victory by midnight Pacific time. That's because fears of election day chaos and postal service dysfunction have translated into an exceptionally heavy early turnout. As of Monday, about 100 million Americans had cast a ballot in person or by mail, including more than half of California’s 22 million registered voters.

But the odds are good that Americans will go to bed Tuesday without knowing the outcome of the presidential contest, simply because of the overwhelming volume of votes cast by mail this year. Although many states allow election officials to start processing mail ballots days or even weeks before Nov. 3 — California, for example, allowed counties to start doing so in early October — the key battleground states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin aren't among them. Officials in those states say they don’t expect results until days after the polls close. And in 22 states, including California, ballots will continue to trickle in for days, even weeks, and will be counted if they are postmarked by election day.

Waiting another few days after such an intense and consequential campaign would be frustrating, but it wouldn't be an indication of a "rigged" voting system or of fraud. Nor would Trump have grounds to cry foul if he isn't declared the winner by the end of the day.

In fact, not having a clear result by midnight would be a hopeful sign that even in the middle of a pandemic, democracy is working.

Turnout has already surpassed 2016 levels in at least two states, despite the challenges posed by the presence of an infectious virus and a deliberately handicapped postal service. And, contrary to Trump's criticism of mail-in voting, those ballots get extra scrutiny — the signatures on the ballot envelope have to be checked by hand against state records. That means those votes take longer to tally than the ones cast in person. Respecting people's right to vote means counting all the ballots that are legally filed, rather than tossing the ones that were still waiting to be counted after Tuesday night for the sake of some artificial deadline.

Another wrinkle: Election experts also expect to see a higher number of provisional ballots this year. Provisional ballots are used when a voter who has been mailed a ballot shows up to vote in person or when the voter's name is missing from local voting rosters (It happens). Provisional ballots are counted last and only after eligibility is established.

Waiting for results is not new to Californians. This pro-voting state has made several major changes in recent years to increase voter registration and to ensure that anyone who wants to cast a ballot can do so, including allowing election day registration and providing a three-day grace period for mail ballots to arrive at election headquarters (the grace period was extended to 17 days for just this year). These changes support a healthy democratic process, but they significantly slow down counting and make it more difficult to predict final outcomes.

If it takes a few extra days for the presidential election to be called nationally, it could be weeks before the results are clear in close California races for state and federal legislative seats and propositions. Deciding to celebrate or mourn based on incomplete results is a fool's errand. The state’s Republicans know a thing about that.

In the 2018 midterm elections, a blue wave swept through the state, flipping seven congressional districts from Republicans to Democrats. But the extent of the disruption wasn’t apparent until weeks after the polls closed. Early tallies showed Democrats trailing in four of those races, but later, more complete counts reversed the results. Stunned by the loss, Trump and other Republicans claimed irresponsibly and incorrectly that there was something suspicious about the outcome. They conveniently forgot that the 2016 reelection of then-Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) was so close that it took three weeks to certify.

It's been a long year, and we are all anxious to know what's in store for the next four. But we can wait a little longer if that's what it takes to maintain a healthy democracy in which every ballot counts.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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