You've got (lots of) mail: Will we know who won the election by Inauguration Day?

You've got (lots of) mail: Will we know who won the election by Inauguration Day?

If you thought 2016 election set new records for conspiracy theories, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The debate over election counting will seem quaint compared to the mess awaiting us in November, Roll Call predicts, as many states press voters to cast ballots by mail to avoid spreading COVID-19 in precincts on Election Day. No one will know who won the election for weeks — and that’s a “generous” estimate, according to Niels Lesniewki:

New York and Kentucky both accepted ballots as long as they were postmarked by election day, and the numbers of absentee voters surged because of precautions taken in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ballots can be received as late as Saturday in Kentucky and June 30 in New York.

Joe Burns, a former deputy director at the New York State Board of Elections, said the counting of absentee ballots in November could take even longer.

“I think weeks could potentially be generous if you’re talking about the number of absentee ballots in a given race going from, say, 4 or 5 percent to 40 or 50 percent,” Burns told reporters Wednesday. “If you go and increase the number of absentee ballots by a factor of 10, you would think it’s going to take that much longer.” …

“Come November, you’re going to have every Democrat, every Republican, every independent entitled to vote, and if the governor continues … the order that every voter is entitled to an absentee ballot should they be afraid of contracting the coronavirus, you’re looking at a massive number of absentee ballots to count,” Burns said on a press call, which was organized by Lawyers Democracy Fund.

New York is already seeing this problem in its primary this week. Some of the races have been settled with the walk-in vote count, but most of them won’t get finalized until next month, thanks to the long-ish deadline:

A deluge of yet-to-be-counted absentee ballots in New York this year means voters will have to wait until July to find out who won many primary elections Tuesday for the state legislature, Congress and other offices.

The mostly unsatisfying end to primary day came after a pandemic-era campaign season in which in-person politicking was curtailed, polling places consolidated, and all voters were encouraged to cast their ballots by mail, rather than risk getting exposed to the coronavirus at a polling location.

Nearly 1.8 million people requested absentee ballots. They had until Tuesday to mail them. Counting of those votes won’t begin until at least July 1, and could last several days or even weeks.

And that’s just one state. Multiply that across fifty states, each with its own protocols for handling vote-by-mail, and “weeks” does start to look generous. We might be talking months rather than weeks, and that will be awkward by January 20, which is when the next presidential term starts — two months and two weeks after Election Day. Add in all of the ways in which mail-in balloting can be challenged, and we might not have a clear winner until the original Inauguration Day of March 4th (1793-1933).

Even if the count could reliably be completed before January 20, there’s the matter of presidential transitions. If Trump loses to Biden, the president-elect will need to have access to governance in order to prepare for a seamless transition by the first day of the new term. Until the election gets certified by the Electoral College, however, the Trump administration might not feel like cooperating, especially if the results are in question and we really don’t know who won which states and by how much. Or, conversely, Biden might insist on setting up a shadow government even though it appears he lost. That’s bad all the way around.

The end result might be that the election goes to the House of Representatives. And that would get ugly no matter who gets control there … which we won’t know either, thanks to the same ballot issues and an even earlier deadline for the next session of Congress to start. Do both parties elect speakers and choose committee chairs? Should Kevin McCarthy and Nancy Pelosi arm-wrestle for the gavel? Could C-SPAN offer that as a pay-per-view event? We might even retire the national debt with that broadcast.

We could avoid all of this by sticking with reliable voting systems that require paper ballots, optical-scan machines, and a physical presence. Rather than close down precincts, we should open more of them to spread out the demand and enable better social distancing. If we can go to grocery stores and Wal-Marts in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can go to the precincts to elect our leaders, too. After the 2016 paranoid-conspiracy nonsense, the last thing we need is an election based on a system with far less confidence in security, more opaque processing, and lengthy waits for outcomes.

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