WASHINGTON – Election officials across the country have warned for months that the sheer volume of mailed ballots will delay the tally of votes for this year’s general election.
But there’s another reason the results are likely to be later than usual this year: Some states are delaying dealing with mail-in ballots before compilation begins.
A mail-in ballot cannot be counted until election officials verify that it has been returned by a registered voter. The ballot is in an unmarked envelope, which is mailed in a larger outer envelope with a place for the elector’s name and signature. The name and often the signature must be verified against a voter registration database to verify the authenticity of the ballot.
If the ballot is not signed or if the signature does not match what is on file, the voter can be contacted to resolve the discrepancy. It all takes time. Once verified, the ballot itself, inside the unmarked envelope, is set aside until the count begins.
A schedule from the Federal Election Assistance Commission, which was put in place after the chaotic presidential election of 2000, notes that states with long experience in processing large volumes of mail-in ballots are beginning to check them about 20 days before polling day. In 35 states, the process begins early, and in 12 of those states, election officials can begin checking the validity of mailed ballots as soon as they are received.
“If your goal is to know as much as possible on election night, it will be absolutely important to be able to deal with them in advance,” said agency commissioner Ben Hovland.
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Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams told the House Homeland Security Committee last week that, for the first time, election officials were allowed during the June primary to begin processing early.
“It took us a good week for all the ballots to be counted, but it would have been even longer without it,” he said. The state plans to do the same for the general election, starting the process on September 21.
But in 11 other states, including the presidential battlefields of Michigan and Pennsylvania, election officials can’t even get the process started until election day. And in three other states, they can’t start until the polls close.
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In the Pennsylvania primary in June, mail-in ballots were still counted a week after the election. The Pennsylvania State Department, which administers the election, urges the state legislature to act quickly to allow the process to begin three weeks before this year’s general election, a proposal approved by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat .
Giving states more time to process would not solve the problem of ballots that arrive too late, by far the number one reason postal ballots are rejected. In Michigan’s primaries this month, for example, about 60 percent of the mail-in ballots were rejected because they arrived after the legal deadline.
A longer processing window gives voters a chance to correct their mistakes, reducing the number of ballots that cannot be verified.
“This is, of course, one of the many reasons why all of this should be happening before election night,” said Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
After the mail-in ballots are verified, a second problem comes into play. They often take longer to count, especially when voters do not follow instructions on how to fill in the blanks to indicate their choices. Small bipartisan groups come together to examine the disputed ballots, trying to determine the intention of voters.
“There are states where this will be done ballot by ballot,” Potter said.
Rick Pildes, an electoral law expert at New York University Law School, said lawsuits would surely be followed unless local prospecting boards resolve disputes the same way.
“There will be litigation if it turns out that states end up treating these ballots differently in different parts of the state, assuming it’s big enough,” he said.
Election administrators and lawyers have a consistent message. They are urging voters to vote in person whenever possible or to request and return their ballots in the mail as soon as possible.