An election isn’t over when the polls close. Election officials need to count ballots, audit results, and certify the election. This year they will need more time.
Many states are working to expand access to mail voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are likely to see record-high rates of voting by mail across the country. Aside from the technical capacity—including scanners and trained volunteers—one easy way for legislators to assist election administrators is to allow them to process mail ballots earlier.
Mail ballots take time to process. A lot of time. Here’s how the process generally works: Mail ballots arrive at local election offices in an envelope with a voter’s name and signature on the outside. Before mail ballots can be counted, election officials must verify the identity of the voter who mailed the ballot, usually by checking the voter’s signature on the absentee ballot envelope against a signature on file. Once eligibility is confirmed, ballot envelopes are sorted and placed in batches. They can then be removed from the outer envelope, separated from any privacy envelope, and fed by batch through a ballot scanner or, for smaller jurisdictions, counted by hand.
The processing of ballots is quicker in some states than others. States that vote entirely or mostly by mail, like Oregon and Colorado, have automated many of these processes. But automation requires expensive machinery that most states with limited absentee voting have neither the money to purchase on a short timeline nor the need for under normal circumstances.
Regardless of whether it’s a manual or automated process, most states’ laws allow election officials to get a start on processing mail ballots in advance of Election Day, recognizing the need to balance public interest in relatively quick results with sufficient time for administrators to do their jobs. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia do not. These states require mail ballot processing to be conducted on Election Day, and four of these states allow this work to begin only after the polls close.
Many states usually have a low rate of mail voting and can generally manage even late start times for mail ballot processing. Voting-by-mail accounted for 23.7% of all votes cast in the 2016 election, and more than half of all states (27 + DC) had less than 10% of all votes cast through the mail. It’s when that process gets scaled up that delays in reporting even unofficial results will mount.
The need for more time to count isn’t a new realization, yet states that have expanded voting by mail in recent years have also failed to address this issue. Two states that have added no-excuse absentee voting since 2016—Pennsylvania and Michigan—also require local election officials to process mail ballots on Election Day. Pennsylvania recently passed Senate Bill 422 to allow processing of absentee ballots beginning the morning of Election Day. Previously, PA was one of just four states to require election officials to wait until the polls close. While this is an improvement, it falls short of what local election officials need; our bipartisan Task Force on Elections recommended that officials be allowed to process absentee ballots at least 7 days before election day.
In Michigan, absentee ballot requests in the 2020 presidential preference primary—the first major election since the law was passed in 2018—were up 97% over the same election in 2016. Election officials in Michigan expect a similar increase in absentee voting in November and have been sounding the alarm on this issue all year in an effort to push the state legislature to allow localities more time in advance of the election to process absentee ballots.
In light of the pandemic, other states are likely to follow Michigan and Pennsylvania in reducing or removing excuse requirements for absentee voting, at least on a temporary basis. As Michigan’s experience has shown, states with the lowest rates of mail voting could easily see their rates double or triple.
Without extending the time available for election officials to process absentee ballots in advance of election day, initial results tallies could be delayed by days.
States allowing processing of mail ballots before Election Day have already addressed this issue by enacting statutes to explicitly prohibit tallying or releasing initial results. For instance, in Ohio, the law only allows for scanning ballots if the equipment “permits an absentee voter’s ballot to be scanned without tabulating or counting the votes on the ballots scanned. The count or any portion of the count of absentee voter’s ballots may not be disclosed prior to the closing of the polls.” In Florida, canvassing and processing of vote-by-mail ballots through tabulating equipment can begin as early as 22 days before the election. To prevent early release of tabulated results, Florida election code subjects election officials to third degree felony criminal penalties if results are released early.
These states have never experienced widespread release of results before the close of polls, and reports of any leaks at all are extremely rare. But the allowance to process ballots before Election Day means that they can release initial results quickly on election night. If states, especially key battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, are delayed in releasing such results for days, you can be sure partisan voices will fill the information vacuum. That will undermine confidence in the outcome of the election regardless of who wins.
Legislators need to at least give election administrators a chance to do their jobs well. One way they can do that during this election cycle is to allow for the processing of mail ballots before Election Day.