The Perils of Slow Vote-Counting and Delayed Election Results

What happens when Election Day lasts for weeks?

The short, glib answer to that question is that Jan. 6 happens — as we learned dramatically this week when Cassidy Hutchinson, a young former aide to Mark Meadows, gave testimony that put former President Donald Trump at the center of that day’s chaos and violence.

The somewhat longer answer is that there’s so much static over how votes should be counted that we’ve seen the same dysfunctional scene twice since 2020 in the same state.

First came the presidential election, where Trump seized on a slow vote count in Pennsylvania to cry fraud, declare victory and sow doubt about Joe Biden’s victory there and elsewhere.

Round Two came about a month ago when the former president raised the specter of election cheating again and urged Dr. Mehmet Oz, his favored candidate in the race for Pennsylvania’s United States Senate seat, to prematurely declare victory in a Republican primary election — a week into the tally of ballots.

Oz sidestepped Trump’s suggestion and eventually won, by just 951 votes. Trump’s insinuations of criminality vanished as quickly as they had surfaced.

But in an angry, polarized nation, it was a reminder of how easily a laggard vote count can be exploited to discredit election results. And it raises the question of what will happen this November, when some counts in midterm elections are inevitably delayed — or in 2024, when the stakes will be immeasurably higher.

Charles H. Stewart III, an election analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said it’s a problem unlikely to go away soon, because, for a mix of reasons having to do with civil rights and also convenience, American voters have played a role in creating it.

“Over the last couple of decades, we’ve enjoyed an expansion of access to the ballot and convenience of voting,” he said. “And nine times out of ten, that expansion has occurred without regard to the blocking and tackling of election administration.”

Translation: Many voters, including Republican voters, love the shift to mail ballots, early voting, voting within minutes of registering, drop boxes and other efforts to make voting easier and more accessible. But those innovations make voting costlier and more complex — and governments have neither ponied up money nor changed election laws to deal with it.

Outside experts say election officials already need well over $2 billion just to replace aging voting machines and beef up security against both physical and cyber attacks. And that doesn’t include the cost of improvements like high-speed ballot scanners, envelope-opening machines and additional employees that would make counting faster. Some of these ideas are under discussion on Capitol Hill.Elections have always run long because of the days of backstage work, validating tallies and verifying questionable ballots, that has to happen even when winners are declared early.

The public never saw that sausage-making. But now it is causing delays in some states, opening the door to much of the misinformation and disinformation that is clouding election results and casting doubt on the integrity of the vote.

Different parties, different views of the problem

Advocates on the left and right see different problems.

California can be particularly thorny because of how slowly and unevenly it counts in votes. In 2018, The Associated Press called one Central Valley congressional race for Representative David Valadao, a Republican, only to make a rare retraction when the Democrat pulled ahead weeks later.

More recently, the slow vote-counting in last month’s primaries caused a shift in final results from the initial tallies. On election night, the early leader in the Los Angeles mayoral contest, the mall developer and self-styled crimefighter was Rick Caruso. He now trails a more liberal Democrat, Karen Bass, who argued that “Los Angeles cannot arrest its way out of crime.”

Progressives complained, loudly, about how the initial results — in Los Angeles and from the successful recall of San Francisco’s district attorney — were framed as a warning about the potency of crime, including in this newspaper. Some progressive prosecutors won, such as Diana Becton in Contra Costa County, whose campaign received a late $1 million ad blitz fund by a PAC linked to the liberal financier George Soros.

On the right, Trump and like-minded candidates are quick to claim fraud whenever a slow vote count leaves one of them endangered or defeated. And Republican officeholders, increasingly hostile to voting by mail, may see little incentive to make it work better.

But there is a whiff of hypocrisy to many of their claims: In Nevada, a Republican candidate for secretary of state, Jim Marchant, argued on the campaign trail that every winner of a state election since 2006 had actually been “installed by the deep-state cabal” — only to declare that “Nevadans made their voices heard” when he won the state’s primary in mid-June.

Swamped by vote by mail

If laggard election results encourage misinformation, deliberate or otherwise, the obvious remedy is to count votes faster, and declare winners sooner. So why aren’t states doing that?

In California, at least, a leisurely tally is effectively state policy. The state embraces mail ballots — about two thirds of votes are cast via mail or drop box — and accepts properly postmarked mail ballots up to a week late. In a state that mails out 22 million absentee ballots for every election, processing that takes time.

In some other states, the swing to mail voting has swamped election officials who can’t afford high-speed equipment to process ballot envelopes. And while 37 states allow at least some processing of mail ballots as they come in, laws in other states force workers to wait until Election Day before even opening ballot envelopes, much less counting votes and verifying signatures.

That was the case this spring in Pennsylvania, which sent out nearly 910,000 mail ballots to voters who requested them. To compound the task, a printing error forced a days-long hand recount of some 21,000 mail ballots.

Election judges in Denver counting votes during the primary on Tuesday.Credit…Daniel Brenner for The New York Times

Doing it right

That said, states like Oregon, Colorado and Utah conduct all-mail elections seamlessly and report results promptly. And Wisconsin, which also bars opening mail ballots before Election Day, managed to report 2020 general election results by 3 a.m. on the day after the polls closed.

“It just comes down to process and procedure and having the right equipment,” said Claire Woodall-Vogg, the executive director of the Milwaukee Board of Election Commissioners.

Wisconsin doesn’t require signature verification of ballots, which speeds counting considerably, she said. But the purchase of additional high-speed tabulators also has allowed the city to process more than twice as many ballots in the same amount of time.

Just because the tallies can be accelerated does not mean that they will be. The next two elections face challenges that could prolong counts even further.

One is a potential shortage of poll workers, deterred from volunteering because of threats of violence. Another is a shortfall of money, now that some states have barred help from outside groups that donated hundreds of millions of dollars to finance local election work in 2020.

A third is an exodus of seasoned election administrators, who are retiring in droves after the pressures of the 2020 election cycle. Running a secure election is an extraordinarily complex task, and that institutional knowledge will be hard to replace, said Jennifer Morrell, a former election official in Colorado and Utah and now a partner in The Elections Group, a consulting firm.

And that could lead to more cracks in fraying foundations of American democracy.

“Overall, I think election administration is better today than it’s ever been,” Ms. Morrell said. “The flip side is that the misinformation and election conspiracies are bigger than they’ve ever been. I’m super concerned.”

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Cassidy Hutchinson testifying on Tuesday before the House committee investigating the Capitol riot.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

A momentous hearing

On Politics regularly features work by Times photographers. Here’s what Haiyun Jiang told us about capturing the image above:

Doug Mills, the well-known New York Times photographer, always reminds me not to take scenes on Capitol Hill for granted, even if I have seen them a thousand times. So I always try to approach photo coverage with a fresh eye, striving to make frames of aesthetic and storytelling value.

When I covered the Jan. 6 House committee hearing featuring testimony from Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to President Donald J. Trump’s final chief of staff, Mark Meadows, I was in the “cuts” — meaning I had the freedom to move around the room, as opposed to being in the “well,” where you are stationed between the committee members and the witness and have very little room to move.

I tried to show what I saw by capturing a fuller picture. As I stood on the side, photographers formed a curve with their cameras, and the audience, even the stenographers, focused on the witness. So I decided to include all of those characters in the frame, taking people into the hearing room and hopefully making them feel present.

Thanks for reading. Enjoy the July 4 holiday; we’ll see you on Tuesday.

— Blake

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