WASHINGTON – Americans have come to expect that they will know who their next president is on election night, but that’s likely to change this fall.
In fact, because of a huge increase in mail-in voting in states that are not used to it, the presidential election could take a week or more to be decided. Public officials and advocates are just now beginning to grapple with how to prepare themselves, and the country, for this unprecedented situation.
“It’s a culture shift that’s going to be required,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in an interview. “We should be prepared to wait at least a week before results can be certified.”
Gupta, who oversaw the Justice Department’s civil rights division from 2014 to 2017, said her organization — one of the oldest civil rights groups in the country — would work with other groups over the next several months to raise awareness and create an expectation among both voters and journalists that results should not be expected on election night.
“People are going to have to be able to be patient to wait for the results,” Gupta told Yahoo News. “That’s an uncomfortable position for a lot of people. The media’s not used to it. The public’s not used to it.”
But, she said, “election officials need to be able to do their job to make sure they are counting every ballot. The danger would be if there is false pressure that gets built in and people are disenfranchised because of this false pressure.”
Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said that “if we have a vote-by-mail state that is really close, I would rather be in a position where everybody’s vote got counted. I think that should be our gold standard, is that everyone who wanted to participate was able to participate.”
“I'd rather get it right than get it at 10 o’clock on Election Day night,” Perez said in an interview on “Skullduggery,” a Yahoo News podcast.
The coronavirus will remain a major presence in American life, no matter what, this fall, but what that will look like is hard to predict. The summer could see a downturn in cases followed by a major second wave of outbreaks. Or there could be a steady string of flare-ups in different parts of the country as the nation tries to restart economic and public life.
In any case, the demand for mail-in voting in the fall will be dramatically higher than normal. Most states have already switched their primaries this spring and summer to emphasize vote-by-mail. And a new poll released Sunday showed 72 percent support for switching the fall elections entirely to mail-in ballots, a position that goes beyond even what voting rights advocates want. Limited early and day-of in-person voting is vital.
But most of the states that will be watched the most closely on election night are certain to be counting exponentially more mail-in ballots than they ever have. Of the six swing states that are likely to decide who the next president is, only one has conducted the majority of past elections by mail: Arizona, where 79 percent of the vote was by mail in 2018, according to statistics compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting rights organization at New York University.
Two of the other six swing states have at least fairly robust experience with voting by mail. Florida saw a third of its voters cast ballots by mail in 2018, and in Michigan it was one out of every four voters.
But two of the six swing states have very little experience with remote voting: Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. They had 6 percent and 4 percent mail-in voting in 2018, respectively.
Wisconsin conducted a primary election on April 7 in which mail-in ballots came from more than 80 percent of the electorate, according to a report by the state elections commission. And it took six days for results to be reported.
But while mail-in ballots take longer to count, they are undoubtedly a safer way of voting amid a pandemic. Wisconsin officials have already traced seven new infections back to in-person voting during the primary.
Part of the delay in counting the Wisconsin mail-in ballots stemmed from the fact that any that were dropped off at a post office and postmarked by Election Day were eligible to be counted. Most states set cutoff dates that are before Election Day and don’t count ballots that arrive after that cutoff date, but Megan Lewis, co-founder of the Voting Rights Lab, a group founded to roll back obstacles to voting, told Yahoo News that “states should count ballots that are postmarked up to Election Day itself.” That would add another layer of complexity to getting a result.
Turnout in the Wisconsin primary was close to the record level set in 2016, even with the grave concerns most voters had about the risks to their health. That was a good test run for the state’s first time conducting an election mostly by mail. But in a general election, participation goes up exponentially, meaning a state like Wisconsin will likely have to count almost twice as many ballots this fall.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania is gearing up for a June 2 primary that was supposed to take place on April 28. It got pushed back to help the state deal with the pandemic public safety crisis.
Pennsylvania had been one of 18 states that required a reason to vote by mail until last fall. Now anyone who wants to vote by mail can do so, in the June 2 Pennsylvania primary and in the general election this fall.
Requests for mail ballots have skyrocketed. As of Monday, Pennsylvania had received 296,168 applications for no-excuse mail-in ballots, which were not an option in previous elections, according to data supplied by the secretary of state’s office to Yahoo News. In addition, there were 101,118 requests for absentee ballots, which is already more than the 84,000 absentee ballots that were used in the 2016 Pennsylvania primary.
It’s not just swing states or those that lean left that are preparing for an increase in mail voting. A majority of states have already told the federal government that they plan to use their portion of the $400 million Congress set aside in March to help them prepare for changes to their elections.
“Although many Tennessee voters are already eligible to vote absentee by-mail, we typically see only 1.5% to 2.5% of voters participating by mail. We expect there will be an increase in absentee by-mail requests,” wrote Tre Hargett, Tennessee’s secretary of state, in a letter notifying the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) that his state will avail itself of the $7.9 million it was given.
“We will use the funds to purchase necessary supplies for counties to process an increased number of requests and will likely require extra scanners and more personnel to process and count ballots,” Hargett wrote.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill wrote a letter to the EAC notifying it that his state would be making “preparation for possible increased absentee election activity related to the November 3, 2020 General Election ... to pay for increased absentee election costs.”
Democrats are pushing to include more money in the next coronavirus relief package, which is expected to be taken up by Congress in May. The Brennan Center has released an itemized list of how much it would cost to prepare all 50 states for the fall, to the tune of $2 billion.
In Wisconsin, election officials said that having nearly a week to count their results in the April 7 primary was a very good thing.
“The extended tally period allowed [the Wisconsin Elections Commission] and local election officials to see the benefit of being able to carefully process ballots and results sets without the pressure of an end-of-the-night deadline,” Meagan Wolfe, the administrator of the WEC, wrote in a report this past Saturday.
“It helps to reinforce the message that accurate and secure elections and tallies take time to produce,” Wolfe reported.
Suzanne Smalley and Daniel Klaidman contributed reporting.
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