Officials are scrambling to ensure that the vote is counted far more quickly in 2024 after a protracted ballot count put the outcome of the 2020 presidential election in doubt for days.
Several swing states have approved new laws and instituted more efficient processing systems to speed up the vote tally. As we saw in 2020, when then-President Donald Trump stoked conspiracy theories about the vote count and erroneously declared himself the victor, the shorter the period of uncertainty, the less time there is for misinformation to propagate.
“We’re going to continue to be laser focused on the space and time between when the polls close and when the unofficial results are announced,” said Michigan Secretary of State and Democrat Jocelyn Benson. “But what 2020 also showed us is that in addition to that time period, we need to be prepared for them to double down on their misinformation if the unofficial results are not what certain candidates had in mind or had hoped for.”
In 2020, a record number of voters avoided polling venues because of the epidemic. This year, with states counting votes more rapidly and beginning the process sooner, mail voting is projected to decrease.
But problems persist. Procedures for tallying votes might differ from state to state, and party bickering can delay improvements sought by election officials. Officials and experts say it could be days before we know who won the presidency, and that crucial states like Pennsylvania are lagging behind.
The 2020 election is the impetus for the frantic activity. A presidential race that year was not called for days due to a number of factors, including a rise in mail voting, outmoded state legislation, and an elections administration that was short on resources.
One of the major sore points that year was that a few of swing states did not allow for pre-processing of postal ballots before Election Day. Validating voters’ identities, extracting ballots from envelopes, and loading them onto tabulators are all steps that must be taken before mail ballots may be counted. The sooner it’s completed, the sooner votes can be counted.
As a result of the epidemic, an unprecedented number of voters cast their ballots by mail, which caused the counting process in certain states to extend well into Election Day. Heading into 2024, lawmakers in some of those battleground states — at the request of election officials — are allowing for greater pre-processing.
Many Michigan election officials missed out on a 10-hour pre-processing window in 2020 because approval wasn’t granted until a month before the election; by 2024, that window will expand to almost a week. One day of preparation may shortly be allowed in Wisconsin, which is less than many election officials had hoped for but is still seen as vastly preferable to nothing.
Benson remarked that the state’s early voting option, along with the necessary pre-processing and other components, would allow for the expedited release of unofficial election results following poll closure.
Election officials across the battleground states have been talking about ballot counting, she added, “as we prepare for close elections in each of our states next November and post-election challenges and misinformation to flourish as a result.”
Some states have also enacted regulations that would provide the public with a more accurate estimate of the number of outstanding votes, which would help media decision desks in their quest to announce winners.
Counties in Georgia and Pennsylvania, for instance, are now obligated to publish the number of votes they have remaining to count at midnight on Election Day.
Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger predicted that “people are declared a winner by 9:30 or 10 o’clock at night,” similar to the results of the 2022 election cycle. The longer times were for the races that were quite close. But it was the razor-thin margins in those contests that prevented us from picking winners that night.
There haven’t been major shifts in certain states that are key battlegrounds.
Officials in Pennsylvania’s Department of State are frustrated because state lawmakers haven’t authorised the pre-processing of mail ballots. Partisan bickering in Pennsylvania’s state government has regularly derailed progress on this front.
A Republican election officer in Philadelphia, Seth Bluestein, expressed his displeasure with the lawmakers for not providing at least a few days of pre-processing. In the recent, low-turnout municipal elections, that has been irrelevant. Yet, “when we go into next year with a higher turnout, and potentially a close margin at the statewide level,” he warned, “it is certainly going to be a challenge to count all the ballots quickly.”
Pennsylvania, on the other hand, stands out as a major anomaly.
Rachel Orey, senior associate director of the elections project at the Bipartisan Policy Centre, pointed out that preparation of postal ballots has expanded from 27 states in 2020 to all 50 states and the District of Columbia this year.
For a long time, election authorities have complained that official results weren’t available on election night. No state has entirely tabulated every vote cast by midnight on the day of the election – at a minimum, military and other abroad voters get a grace period. And it’s the media, not election authorities, that make the early declarations of victory; official certification of the election results happens well after the public has moved on.
Cisco Aguilar, the Democratic secretary of state of Nevada, has stated that the current emphasis on certification is incorrect. “This is an issue about Nevada voters getting the information that they expect to have,” he explained. No longer can we utilise that line of reasoning until we have achieved perfection.
However, if the race is extremely close, the media might not be able to confidently announce a winner. If the margin of victory is close enough to warrant a recount, the Associated Press will not declare victory.
Having preprocessing periods is helpful, but it is not a silver bullet.
Dropping off a bunch of ballots on election day doesn’t help. Votes that are mailed by Election Day but don’t arrive till shortly afterward are tallied in several states. By their very nature, late ballots cannot be handled in advance.
Since Clark and Washoe counties cast a combined supermajority of the state’s votes, Aguilar said his agency is concentrating on assisting local officials in expanding their capacity. Having enough capable individuals to oversee the operation is a top priority. It’s about making sure we have enough of everything,” he explained. “Do we need to increase the number of pickups at polling sites to be able to get the ballots before the end of Election Day?”
One major change from 2020 is that many states’ election authorities anticipate far fewer voters to use absentee ballots in 2024 and instead return to voting on Election Day or during early voting in person. In the 2022 midterms, more voters voted via mail than in 2018, although it was notably fewer than in 2020.
Over two-thirds of eligible voters have already cast their ballots. A further 30% will cast ballots on Election Day,” Raffensperger added. Voters have faith in the system because they get to make that decision. But if we do it that way, we can swiftly finish tallying all of the absentee ballots.