Some lessons on voting logistics from the states that got it right

We there yet?
We there yet?
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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No matter how much longer it takes to process the results of the US presidential election, one thing seems certain: Pennsylvania could have done a better job of counting.

While most state should finish tallying their ballots today, the Keystone State is expected to keep counting through tomorrow, after it waited until Election Day to start processing absentee ballots.

The long wait for Pennsylvania’s results is just one aspect of this election that could have been smoother. There have been long lines around the country, at early voting sites and on Election Day. While exacerbated by the pandemic, the large number of mail-in ballot and early voting is actually just the progression of a trend that began in 1978, when California first allowed voters to cast absentee ballots without having to provide a reason. Americans have increasingly been voting absentee, or ahead of Election Day, and in many cases the system hasn’t adapted.

This year, by Nov. 3, 73% of the total voters of 2016 had already voted. The percentages may be lower in future elections, when voters will have fewer health concerns. Still, this was essentially a crash test for future elections, and it provided lessons for all states for making the process faster and  more efficient.

Process mail-in ballots before Election Day

US states are divided in three groups when it comes to absentee ballot processing. The overwhelming majority of states (46) begin processing the ballots—that is, they check signatures and make sure there are no irregularities in the votes—either upon receiving them or on a specific date ahead of Election Day. (The actual counting, however, doesn’t start until Election Day.) Four states, however—Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and Alabama—only begin processing their ballots on the day of the election. Some counties don’t even start counting until the day after the election. These states have not updated their rules, which were written at a time when absentee voting was less common, and there were fewer options to keep them safe from tampering till election day, once processed.

Late processing didn’t create much disruption in previous elections, when there were fewer than 270,000 mail-in ballots in the state. But this year, things have been very different. On the morning of Election Day, Pennsylvania election officials found themselves with over 2.6 million mail-in votes to verify, process—and only then, count.

Had Pennsylvania (and Wisconsin) started processing before Nov. 3, the results would have been available late on Election Day, sparing Americans a lot of uncertainty.

To complicate the matter, Pennsylvania is one of 21 states allowing ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 to be counted, meaning ballots can arrive for two days after the election (other states have up to 20 days to receive and count ballots postmarked by election day). These are usually small numbers but can delay the process, albeit rarely so much that it interferes with a state being called.

Have ballot drop-off boxes, and many of them

One way to increase confidence that absentee ballots will be received, and avoid questions about postage price and other post-related issues, is to deploy ballot drop-boxes. At the moment, 40 states allow them, although only eight of them specifically detail the provisions of ballot-drop boxes in their electoral laws.

States with the best practices when it comes to drop-off boxes like Oregon and Washington conduct a full mail-in election. In those states, there are requirements dictating the minimum number of boxes for each community to ensure a sufficient number and that they are easy to access.

Conversely, Texas provided a model for how not to handle drop-off boxes: After early voting started, its governor mandated the number of drop-off boxes be limited to one per county, which risked inconveniencing both voters and election officials with long lines and delays.

Have enough polling places, and let voters choose which one to use

Having enough polling places is important even as more people choose to vote by mail. In states such as Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, polling places were closed or consolidated, creating confusion among voters. Similarly, a lack of early voting locations in New York caused long lines in the days ahead of the elections.

While it’s often not possible to increase the number of polling locations, since the number can be dictated by the availability of poll workers, one way to reduce long lines is to not force people to vote at a specific site. In Travis County, Texas, for instance, voters could choose their voting location, with the option of tracking wait times on a map.