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Will the US election get decided on election night ever again?

A Biden supporter watches and listens to election returns while waiting in the parking lot where U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden held his 2020 U.S. presidential election night event
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
The long wait.
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work reporter

For three days, Americans have waited for election results with one hand on the TV remote (or a refresh button), and the other clutching stress-eating concoctions like General Tso chicken and fried rice burritos.

But there’s a case to be made that people need to get their election-results anxieties—or at least their coping mechanisms—in check. Several signs point to a future in which mail-in ballots will represent a large chunk of votes in a general election, even in pandemic-free years when crowds can gather without fearing the air they breathe. A University of Florida political scientist told the New York Times that he even sees a path to an all-mail general election.

Votes that arrive by post take a lot of time to count, of course. In some states, the counting can’t begin until polls close. And in many places, ballots that arrive several days later will be added to crowded inboxes to be processed, as long as they’re postmarked by election day.

All of that is to say that Americans may never again have the satisfaction of knowing by the end of the first Tuesday (after the first Monday) in November who their next president will be—not until there’s a safe way to vote online, at least.

This change has been coming for years

If this comes as a shock or disappointment, do not blame the pandemic. Although the 2020 election will surely own mail-in voting’s tipping-point moment in the history books, statistics show that voters were increasingly choosing to drop their ballots in the corner postbox long before this year.

In-person election day voting in America has been on the decline. It was the method of choice for nearly 90% of voters in 1996, and fewer than 60% in 2012, according to Census Bureau data cited by Pew Research. Meanwhile, the total number of votes cast by mail doubled between 2004 and 2016, when more than 23% of voters went the postal route.

Mail-in voting has also been getting incrementally easier, according to the Brookings Institution. In a recent report, it found that a growing number of states have adopted what it calls universal mail-in voting, meaning ballots are sent out automatically to eligible voters, without anyone needing to request the forms, a potential barrier to turnout. A total of 10 states have taken up this practice.

In 33 states and the District of Columbia, people also can choose to submit an absentee ballot without indicating why. (Other states still require a reason.)

Voting by mail is easy to audit, has no partisan effects, and may be cheaper

Elections conducted mostly by mail could lead to lower bills, too. Although Phil Ting, the Democratic chair of California’s Assembly Budget Committee, told NBC News that expanding mail-in voting has made cost an issue, he also ventured that this might change. A shift to more mail-in voting could eventually lower costs, if election day turnout at the polls comes to require less staffing and resources.

Despite Donald Trump’s claim that Republicans would never be elected again if the system switched to all mail-in voting, a recent Stanford study analyzing data from three state elections (California, Utah, and Washington) showed no partisan effects compared to the in-person model. David Hall, the political scientist who led the research, concluded that “in normal times, expanding vote-by-mail does not advantage either party.”

This year may be an exception. Survey results from Gallup showed 64% of Americans supported mail voting as a safe measure for this month’s election, including 83% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans. Republican voters, however, had been primed to believe, by the president himself, that mail voting opened the door to fraud.

In reality, there is no such threat: Former US president George W. Bush, a Republican, ordered a five-year study on voter fraud that found it rarely happens with mailed ballots. Of the few cases that looked like purposeful deception at the time, many turned out to be honest mistakes. If anything, voting by mail deserves wide support because it leaves a paper trail, which ought to make it easier to spot trickery and crimes. By contrast, machines that work with buttons or touch screens leave behind no evidence of what happened when someone checked a box.

To be sure, some legitimate concerns about a mass move to mail-in voting still need to be ironed out. For example, Stanford’s Hall acknowledged that his work only looked at the partisan effects of such a change, not how it could affect other kinds of groups differently, and methods for verifying signatures are not airtight.

Another possible pitfall that’s come to light this week? Postal workers could be overwhelmed, potentially putting hundreds of thousands of votes at risk of missing their cut-off dates. Relatedly, avoiding voter suppression in the future may also rely on appointing a nonpartisan postmaster.

Still, the list of benefits is long enough that the country’s most populous state is looking at sending ballots to all voters for every election from now on, joining the 10 states that already do so. California governor Gavin Newsom told Politico that he thinks giving people more options for how they exercise this right is a “fabulous” idea.

Perhaps the only thing more fabulous would be a fix for getting through the wait times while the ballots get counted.

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