Debate is raging about the coming spike in mail-in ballots, which will result from pandemic-driven fears of voting in crowded polling places on Nov. 3. Much of the discussion centers on possible voter fraud, which is, historically, quite unlikely. (Since Oregon switched entirely to mail-in voting in 2000, for instance, it has found only one-hundred-thousandth of 1 percent of ballots to be fraudulent.)
But mail-in voter fraud is a red herring that’s pulling attention from a far more serious problem. Thousands of jurisdictions nationwide will struggle to collect and count ballots in a timely and orderly fashion.
The reason is no mystery. COVID-19 will trigger tidal waves of mail-in ballots that could overwhelm town, county and state election offices that simply aren’t equipped to handle them. Elected officials at every level — from Congress to governors to the smallest town councils — must dramatically ramp up preparations, starting immediately, to ensure an election process the American public will accept as transparent and fair.
How big a shift toward vote-by-mail is coming? This year’s primary elections — most of which occurred after the coronavirus began sweeping the nation — give us clues. States that conducted their primaries after March 17 averaged receiving 51 percent of all ballots by mail, compared to 13 percent before. Georgia’s primary saw a 2,500 percent increase in absentee ballots from the 2016 primary.
Six in 10 Americans want to vote early this fall (either in person at early-voting sites or by placing ballots in designated drop boxes or U.S. mailboxes), according to a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. That’s roughly a 50 percent increase from the 2016 general election. Some analysts predict a much larger increase.
A few U.S. states have universal mail-in voting, and others have significant experience handling large volumes of mail-in or absentee ballots. But most don’t, as evidenced by the 22 states that received fewer than 7 percent of all ballots by mail in the last presidential election. Unless they bulk up their resources quickly, their election systems could collapse into chaos.
“Reviewing, processing, and tallying ballots in most states is a time-intensive and often manual process,” says a study by the Bipartisan Policy Center. “In many states, election systems are simply not set up to accommodate the expected increase in people voting by mail, and election officials will be overwhelmed.”
This coronavirus-related dilemma is analogous to the nightmare that hit state unemployment offices starting in March. The near-shutdown of the U.S. economy sent jobless claims skyrocketing, and unemployment offices suddenly were inundated, requiring weeks to catch up.
New York’s June 23 primary warns us of what November could bring, only on a far bigger scale: Absentee voting increased by 1,000 percent, and official election results weren’t known for weeks.
Further complicating things is the mishmash of laws that govern mail-in voting. For instance, 29 states require mail ballots to arrive by Election Day, but 21 states merely require them to be postmarked by Election Day. Thirty-six states allow election officials to start processing mail ballots — such as matching signatures on the ballots — before Election Day. But 11 states don’t start the process until Election Day, guaranteeing that results from closely contested states won’t be known for days or weeks.
Finally, states and courts must do all they can to minimize errors and disqualified ballots, a bigger chore than many might expect. This year in Georgia, for example, a federal judge extended the deadline for accepting absentee ballots after more than 8,000 ballots were invalidated because they arrived after the June primary election date. In New York’s primary, more than 100,000 absentee ballots were invalidated for various reasons, including missing postmarks.
Fortunately, some states are at least beginning to address these issues, often by making it easier and more secure to vote by absentee ballot. But the federal government needs to do more.
A good start is Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) bill to grant states more time to collect and count ballots. Among other things, it would extend the Dec. 8 deadline for completing all state recounts, court contests and naming of presidential “electors” under the Electoral College system. Without the extension, some states may be forced to submit incomplete results, which is intolerable for a serious democracy.
“We should give states the flexibility to provide local election officials additional time to count each and every vote,” said Rubio.
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Meanwhile, many states remain ill-prepared for the coming onslaught of mailed-in ballots. Congress, governors, state legislators and state and federal judges must leap into action to prevent an election meltdown that could profoundly shake confidence in our democratic process.
The clock is ticking. In this, the world’s longest-standing democracy, it’s hard to envision a more urgent priority.
Margaret White is co-executive director of No Labels, a group that seeks to move Washington beyond partisan gridlock and toward solutions to challenges faced by the country.