Whether President Trump is reelected or Vice President Biden wins, America is not likely to know the outcome of the contest for days, or even weeks. The reason is simple: the rush to mail-in balloting will overwhelm the local elections officials who do the job of counting the vote.
In-person votes cast either early or on Election Day are typically counted by machine, usually by computers. As such, in person voting—the only sure way to know your vote isn’t lost in the mail—is counted quickly on election night.
But in-person voting has been steadily dwindling as a share of the total vote as more and more citizens embrace voting by mail. There are a variety of reasons for this, ranging from convenience to aggressive ballot harvesting efforts, largely by progressives and organized labor.
Our Constitution sets out a republican form of government. This means we don’t have a direct democracy, but rather a republic. This is why the Electoral College chooses the president and vice president. Each state gets as many votes as they have members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. senators (Washington, D.C. get three votes).
According to the Real Clear Politics 2020 Electoral College Map, 187 out of 538 Electoral College votes are too close to call with 226 solid or leaning for Biden and 125 solid or leaning for Trump. Assuming all Electors are seated and vote, it takes 270 votes to win.
Most media organizations have already calculated what it will take to “call” a state for a specific candidate. A state is called when, based on history, polling, exit polling, and understanding of the composition of the counted vote—for instance, how much of the vote has come in from more liberal urban areas vs. more conservative suburban and rural areas.
The challenge for 2020—it had to be 2020, of course—is that the flood of mail-in ballots is going to make calling certain states highly risky for the major media’s already battered reputation. The questions that affect the election night tally are: how much of the vote was by mail and is that known with certainty; when can local elections officials begin processing mail-in ballots to check for their validity (for instance, by matching signature); and, when can local officials begin counting the ballots?
In 2016, 57.2 million people voted early or by mail—about 42% of the vote and about double the share from 2004. Of those, 33.1 million sent their ballots in by mail—and these are the ballots that made it and were counted. According to the Washington Post, some 534,000 ballots were rejected during the 2020 primaries, either because they arrived late, the signature of the voter didn’t match what was on file, or other failures. In a separate analysis published in the Post that drew on his article in the Harvard Data Science Review, Charles Stewart III estimated that as many as 4.9% of mail-in ballots fail to result in a counted vote—that’s 1 in 20.
So, of the mail-in ballots that are validated and counted in the swing states, how soon after the polls close will they be counted? Real Clear Politics lists 11 states as too close to call. Of these, elections officials can process the mail-in ballots—meaning verifying that they are valid—prior to Election Day. Those state are Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas. Unfortunately, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin don’t allow processing of mail-in ballots until Election Day. This is especially going to be a problem in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
In Michigan, elections officials mailed 7.7 million registered voters mail-in ballot applications. As of Oct. 5, more than 2.7 million Michigan voters requested mail-in ballots, a 145% increase from the 2016 presidential race with 380,000 mail-in ballots already received. Per a judge’s ruling in September, Michigan clerks must accept ballots arriving after Election Day so long as they are postmarked no later than Nov. 2 and received before the deadline for certifying election results, or 14 days after the election. The U.S. Postal Service frequently does not postmark envelopes containing ballots, leaving the ruling open to further litigation.
Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot challenge is even greater than Michigan’s. Officials expect 10 times the number of mail-in ballots in 2020 compared to 2016—3 million. These ballots have until the Friday after Election Day to make it to elections officials by mail. Expecting—and in many cases, encouraging—this avalanche of mail, some elections officials asked the legislature to change the law and allow them to verify the ballots before Election Day. So far, the request has not resulted in a change to the law. As a result, there will be tremendous pressure to process mailed ballots to decide the election and this may result in a rushed verification effort, allowing a larger number of invalid or fraudulent ballots to be counted.
Once mail-in ballots are processed, they must be counted. Again, states have different rules governing the counting of mail-in ballots. Seven of the swing states allow the counting of mail-in ballots no earlier than Election Day—Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas (in the smaller counties—counties of more than 100,000 can start the count no earlier than the Friday before Election Day at 7 P.M.) and Wisconsin. Given that populous Texas counties can start counting days before Election Day, the status of Texas should be known sometime on Election Night. The same cannot be reasonably said for the other six states.
The upshot of these varying rules over the processing and counting of mail-in ballots—during a year when, because of concern over COVID-19, a far larger number of mail-in ballots are expected to be used—means that the final results from six states totaling 74 Electoral College votes isn’t likely to be known for days.
In the case of Michigan and Pennsylvania, with ballots accepted two weeks and three days after Election Day, respectively, people—or fraudsters—might still be casting ballots after the election. This raises the specter of a Texas-like Box 13 scandal. Box 13 was a ballot box that was “found” six days after Election Day in the 1948 contest that elevated Lyndon Johnson to the U.S. Senate. It contained 202 votes—just enough to boost Johnson to victory—with the signature tally sheets for those 202 voters arranged in uniform handwriting with the names perfectly alphabetized.
The rush to accommodate millions of additional mail-in ballots for the 2020 General Election means that, unless the election is a landslide, we may not know the winner for weeks—and that’s the least bad outcome. At the other extreme, allowing millions of ballots to arrive and be counted days and weeks after the election invites fraud on a massive scale if not carefully monitored by representatives of both major campaigns.