Comment: Yes, the ballot count is slow; but it can be trusted

Making elections more accessible means a longer count and is not an indication of irregularity or fraud.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

It takes a lot of time to count ballots in U.S. elections. What’s more, the speed at which votes are counted varies from state to state and county to county, as different jurisdictions use different methods to reach a final count.

All of this is standard operating procedure and by itself not even a mild indication of irregularity, let alone fraud.

Why it’s the case is less well understood. The U.S. is unusually slow at confirming winners; the recent runoff presidential election in Brazil had a full vote count available a few hours after the polls closed. In the U.S., by contrast, no state will have a final count on Tuesday night. Some states will have large fractions of their overall totals unavailable for days and won’t be able to call close races for a week or two.

Much of the slow count is a function of the basic structure of U.S. elections. American voters typically encounter long ballots featuring elections from school boards to the U.S. Senate. In many other countries, voters might see only one item on the ballot; typically, the local candidates facing off for a seat in parliament, although there are plenty of variations. The U.S. simply holds far more elections for far more positions than most other democracies.

On Tuesday every state will hold U.S. House elections, about two-thirds will hold U.S. Senate elections, most will hold state legislative elections with many voters choosing representatives in two chambers; 36 have gubernatorial elections accompanied by up to half a dozen or more statewide executive offices to fill; and then there are all sorts of local offices, state and local judicial elections and state and local ballot measures, all depending on the state, county, city and other government bodies. Some voters may have only a dozen or so contests; others may face more than 50.

That makes tabulating the ballots a fairly complex operation. Machines can do it quickly, but machines are expensive, so in some cases the ballots have to be transferred from the polling place to the machines. That takes time, especially since those ballots must be carefully secured in order to, yes, prevent any possibility of funny business.

The U.S. also has an unusually decentralized election administration. Decentralization means that each state and even each county (or whichever authority is responsible) has to choose how much to spend on rapidly counting ballots when there are competing priorities just within election administration, let alone all the other things states and local governments do. It isn’t surprising that as a result, some are quicker and some are slower.

Some people who have latched on to the false claims of election fraud from 2020 point to machine counting as a problem. In reality, machines are more accurate than humans when it comes to counting. Long U.S. ballots also make counting by hand impractical; a recent attempt to do it in a Nevada county turned into a fiasco stopped by the courts.

That’s not all. A mix of ballot types and polling arrangements creates the potential for further delays, as election officials deal with early in-person, absentee and other mail-in votes along with ballots cast on Election Day. Federal law requires some ballots from overseas active duty troops and their families to be accepted even if they arrive after Election Day. Some states — including Washington state — accept mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day, which means they can be received and legally counted several days later.

Even on Election Day, the use of drop boxes in some places means that someone has to physically retrieve ballots and, depending on what methods they use, separate them into the correct precincts since voters who live in different areas and use different ballots sometimes use the same drop box. All mail-in ballots take time to process, from physically removing the ballot from the envelope to ensuring that whatever anti-fraud protocols (such as signature matches) are followed. Votes received in advance could be processed and even counted when they are received, but some states — most notoriously Pennsylvania — don’t allow that. So the count goes on.

All these steps involve trade-offs. Counting is quicker if mail-in ballots must arrive by Election Day; but fewer people would vote, and presumably more of them would vote while the campaign was still going on and before any late developments. Counting would be even quicker if vote-by-mail was ended and absentee ballots tightly restricted, but that, too, would make it more difficult for many to vote.

The bottom line is that the vote count will be slow in predictable ways, at least for those who are familiar with how various states do things. That is, for better or worse, how the system is set up. So prepare to be patient. And prepare to ignore those who use delays to attempt to undermine confidence in elections.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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