HomePoliticsThe dangers of slow vote counting and delayed election results

The dangers of slow vote counting and delayed election results


What happens when Election Day lasts for weeks?

The short and simplistic answer to that question is that January 6 happens, as we dramatically learned this week when Cassidy Hutchinson, a young former assistant to Mark Meadows, gave testimony that put former President Donald Trump at the center of the chaos and violence of that day. .

The somewhat longer answer is that there is so much static about how votes should be counted that we have seen the same dysfunctional scene twice since 2020. in the same state.

First it was the presidential election, in which Trump took advantage of a slow vote count in Pennsylvania to call out fraud, declare victory and cast doubt on Joe Biden’s victory there and elsewhere.

The second round came about a month ago, when the former president again raised the specter of electoral cheating and urged Dr. Mehmet Oz, his favorite candidate in the race for the US Senate seat from Pennsylvania, to testify victory in a Republican primary election prematurely: one week in the vote count.

Oz sidestepped Trump’s suggestion and ultimately won, by just 951 votes. The hints of Trump’s criminality faded as quickly as they had surfaced.

But in an angry and polarized nation, it was a reminder of how easily a lagging vote count can be exploited to discredit election results. And it begs the question of what will happen this November, when some counts are inevitably delayed in the midterms, or in 2024, when the stakes will be vastly higher.

Charles H. Stewart III, an election analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said it’s a problem that probably won’t go away any time soon because, for a combination of civil rights and expediency reasons, American voters have played a role in creating it

“Over the past two decades, we have enjoyed an expansion of ballot access and the convenience of voting,” he said. “And nine times out of ten, that expansion has occurred without taking into account the blockade and the approach of the electoral administration.”

Translation: Many voters, including Republican voters, love the switch to mail-in ballots, early voting, voting within minutes of registering, drop boxes, and other efforts to make voting easier and more accessible. But those innovations make voting more costly and complex, and governments have not shelled out money or changed electoral laws to deal with it.

Outside experts say election officials already need more than $2 billion just to replace aging voting machines and beef up security against physical and cyber attacks. And that doesn’t include the cost of upgrades like high-speed ballot scanners, envelope opening machines and additional employees that would speed up the count. Some of these ideas are being discussed on Capitol Hill. Elections have always dragged on due to days of work behind the scenes, validating counts and verifying questionable ballots, that has to happen even when winners are declared ahead of time.

The public never saw such sausage making. But now it is causing delays in some states, opening the door to much of the misinformation and disinformation that is clouding election results and calling the integrity of the vote into question.

Defenders on the left and right see different problems.

California can be particularly thorny due to the slow and uneven vote count. In 2018, The Associated Press called a Central Valley congressional race for Republican Representative David Valadao, only make a rare retraction when the Democrat came forward weeks later.

More recently, the slow vote count in last month’s primary caused a change in the final results of the initial counts. On election night, the early leader in the Los Angeles mayoral race, the mall developer and self style crime fighter It was Rick Caruso. He now follows a more liberal Democrat, Karen Bass, who argued that “Los Angeles cannot stop crime through arrests.”

Progressives complained loudly about how the initial results, in Los Angeles and the successful removal of the San Francisco district attorney, were framed as a warning about the potency of crime, even in this newspaper. Some progressive prosecutors won, like Diana Becton in Contra Costa County, whose campaign she received a late $1 million publicity blitz fund by a PAC linked to liberal financier George Soros.

To the right, Trump and like-minded candidates are quick to allege fraud whenever a slow vote count leaves one of them in jeopardy or defeated. And Republican officials, increasingly hostile to mail-in voting, may see little incentive to make it work better.

But there is a hint of hypocrisy in many of his claims: In Nevada, a Republican candidate for secretary of state, Jim Marchant, argued on the campaign trail that every winner of a statewide election since 2006 had actually been “installed by the deep state cabal” — only to declare that “Nevadans made their voices heard” when he won the state primary in mid-June.

If lagging election results encourage disinformation, deliberate or not, the obvious remedy is to count votes faster and declare winners sooner. So why aren’t states doing that?

In California, at least, a paused account is effectively state policy. The state accepts mail-in ballots (about two-thirds of votes are cast by mail or drop box) and accepts properly postmarked mail-in ballots up to a week late. In a state that mails out 22 million absentee ballots for each election, processing takes time.

In some other states, the switch to mail-in voting has inundated election officials who can’t afford high-speed equipment to process ballot envelopes. And while 37 states allow at least some processing of mail-in ballots as they arrive, laws in other states force workers to wait until Election Day before even opening ballot envelopes, let alone count the votes and verify the signatures.

That was the case this spring in Pennsylvania, which sent nearly 910,000 mail-in ballots to voters who requested them. Complicating the task, a misprint forced a manual recount of some 21,000 mail-in ballots over several days.

That said, states like Oregon, Colorado, and Utah run mail-in elections without a hitch and report results immediately. And Wisconsin, which also prohibits the opening of mail-in ballots before Election Day, managed to report the results of the 2020 general election by 3 a.m. the day after polls closed.

“It all comes down to process and procedure and having the right equipment,” said Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Board of Election Commissioners.

Wisconsin does not require signature verification on ballots, which speeds up the count considerably, he said. But the purchase of additional high-speed tabulators has also allowed the city to process more than twice as many ballots in the same amount of time.

Just because accounts can be sped up doesn’t mean they will be. The next two elections face challenges that could further prolong the count.

One is the potential shortage of poll workers, deterred from volunteering due to threats of violence. Another is a shortage of money, now that some states have banned help from outside groups that donated hundreds of millions of dollars to fund local election work in 2020.

A third is an exodus of experienced election administrators, retiring en masse after the pressures of the 2020 election cycle. Running a safe election is an extraordinarily complex task, and that institutional knowledge will be hard to replace, said Jennifer Morrell, a former official. election in Colorado and Utah and now a partner in the electoral group, a consulting firm.

And that could lead to more cracks in the frayed foundation of American democracy.

“Overall, I think election administration is better today than ever,” said Ms. Morrell. “The other side of the coin is that electoral disinformation and conspiracies are bigger than ever. I’m super worried.”


On Politics regularly features the work of Times photographers. Here’s what Haiyun Jiang had to say about capturing the image above:

Doug Mills, the well-known New York Times photographer, always reminds me not to take the Capitol scenes for granted, even though I’ve seen them a thousand times. So I always try to approach photographic coverage with a fresh look, striving to make frames of aesthetic and narrative value.

When I covered the Jan. 6 House committee hearing with the testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to President Donald J. Trump’s last chief of staff, Mark Meadows, he was in the “cutouts,” meaning he had the freedom to move around the room, as opposed to being in the “pit”, where you are parked between the committee members and the witness and have very little room to move.

I tried to show what I saw by capturing a more complete picture. As he stood to one side, the photographers curved their cameras and the audience, including the stenographers, focused on the witness. So I decided to bring all those characters into the frame, bring people into the courtroom and hopefully make them feel present.

Thank you for reading. Enjoy the 4th of July holiday; see you on Tuesday.

—Blake

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