When will we finish counting the votes in November?

By this point, I’m fairly sure that most of us aren’t expecting to go to bed on November 3rd knowing who the next president will be. Absent some major shift in the polls over the next eight weeks or so, some of the key states are already looking like the race could be very tight and remain too close to call even if this were a “normal” election year. (Yeah, we’re looking at you, North Carolina.) But this isn’t going to be a normal election in any sense of the word, mostly because of the massive amount of mail-in voting that will be taking place. Aside from the obvious and proven issues with voter fraud taking place using stolen or discarded ballots, there’s the question of counting them all.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s just counting, right? We’ve been doing that since the beginning of recorded history so we should really have addition down pat by now. But state laws in a number of locations don’t allow the counting of mail-in ballots to begin until election day, with a few of them not allowing the ballots to be touched until the polls have closed. On top of that, there’s the issue of validating the ballots. The names and signatures on the envelopes have to be checked against the voter rolls and that takes time. (NBC News)

A mail-in ballot cannot be counted until election officials verify that it was returned by a registered voter. The ballot is in an unmarked envelope, which is mailed inside a larger outer envelope with a place for the voter’s name and signature. The name and often the signature must be checked against a voter registration database to verify the ballot’s authenticity.

If the ballot isn’t signed or the signature doesn’t match what’s on file, the voter can be contacted to resolve the discrepancy. All of that takes time. Once verified, the ballot itself, inside the unmarked envelope, is set aside until the counting begins.

A timeline from the federal Election Assistance Commission, which was set up after the chaotic 2000 presidential election, notes that states with long experience in handling large volumes of mailed ballots begin to verify them about 20 days before Election Day.

What we’re seeing here is yet another example of how the small number of states with extensive experience in doing mass mail-in voting have learned their lessons the hard way and worked things out. States like Washington work diligently to vigorously clean up their voter rolls while the states who are late to the game have a hot mess on their hands. But states like Washington also allow their Boards of Elections to begin validating and counting the ballots as much as 25 days before the election. That way, they can come up with a fairly close number by the end of the evening on election day.

But as the linked report points out, there are eleven states where officials can’t even begin validating the ballots until the morning of election day. Those include Michigan and Pennsylvania, by the way. In three other states, the ballots can’t be touched until after the polls close.

Normally, in the states that don’t use mail-in ballots for everyone, that’s not much of an issue. The number of absentee ballots they need to count is a tiny fraction of the total and it’s rarely enough to swing the race unless the in-person voting comes down to an incredibly tight margin. That’s not to say it never happens, but for the most part, the absentee ballots are generally just a technicality that gets added on to the official totals after the fact.

This won’t matter in some of the massive states like New York and California. We’ll already know that Biden carried those before the counting even begins. But what about Pennsylvania? More than 6,100,000 people voted in the Keystone State in 2016. If even half of them vote by mail this year it’s going to be a Herculean task to validate, open, and count all of those ballots. And if it’s as close as it was last time, it could easily be days, if not a week later before we know the results. And a significant percentage of absentee ballots are typically rejected because of errors made by the voter when filling them out.

With all of that in mind, we may not only be waiting until the following week to know who won, but the loser is likely to be very unhappy with the results if a lot of ballots are kicked out. It could even lead to court challenges of the results.

Does that mean that the election will be invalid? Not at all. Keep in mind how long we waited to find out who won in 2000. We were into December before the dust finally settled and somehow the republic continued to stagger ahead. But people really aren’t going to be happy about it because we live in an era of instant gratification thanks to the wonders of technology. Some of you might want to take up meditation between now and then just to keep your blood pressure under control.