October 21, 2020

Patience Required

By Stephen Tuttle | Oct. 17, 2020

It's going to be a very long election night. Voter fraud will have nothing to do with it.

Every state has some form of early, mail-in voting this year, and only Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Indiana still require a reason to request a mail-in ballot. The other 45 states and Washington, D.C. provided early voting options on request, and about half those states sent early ballot applications to all registered voters. 

Half the states, including Michigan, will only count mail-in ballots that arrive by the time the polls close on Nov. 3. County clerks here will be allowed to begin processing mail-in ballots, though not tabulating votes, 10 hours before the polls close. Allowing them additional time to verify signatures and begin processing the ballots will speed things up, but we're talking around 2 million ballots statewide.

It will take a long time. Not as long, however, as in the other 25 states and D.C. They will count any ballot postmarked on or before Election Day. All have time limits, though Washington state's is pretty extreme; they'll count any ballot properly postmarked for 23 days after the election. And most won't start processing ballots until the polls close.

These states, which account for 364 of the 538 electoral votes, will take at least several days to tally every ballot. It will be frustrating, but not to everybody.

A dozen states have been doing mail-in voting by request for years, and five — Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, and Hawai'i — vote only by mail. They are now accustomed to an election night with many races a long way from being decided. And they know results will trickle out over the course of several days following Election day.

For example, Arizona has been doing vote-by-mail on request for a decade. Its registered voters can be put on a permanent early voting list. And more than half the state's voters have voted by mail for several election cycles. There was an increase in vote-by-mail requests this year, but because so many people already vote by mail, it wasn't as dramatic as in some other states. Arizona's September primaries were fairly typical; it took five days before all the ballots had been counted.

We will have to accept that as the norm, not the exception, this election. Once the polls are closed, tens of millions of mailed ballots must have the external signature verified, the envelope opened, the security envelope removed, the ballot removed from the security envelope, the ballot unfolded, and the ballot fed into the voting machine. And all of it by hand.

The delays will result in shrill cries of fraud and other shenanigans, but anything beyond human errors is incredibly unlikely. 

The Brennan Center for Justice has researched voter fraud and found it accounts for 0.0003 percent of all votes cast. All the cases of fraud they did discover involved individuals or a small group trying to stupidly game the system and getting caught. There was no widespread voter fraud, much less any organized effort at such a thing.

Here in Michigan, more than 21 million ballots have been cast since 2007. In that time, there have been 11 successful prosecutions for voter fraud, and four of those involved petition signatures. 

You will recall there were cries of widespread voter fraud before, during, and after the 2016 presidential election. President Trump even appointed a Voter Fraud Commission led by Kris Kobach, who was then Kansas Secretary of State. Kobach had made a career of claiming illegal immigrants were voting in massive numbers. His investigations always began with much bravado and ended quietly when he could find no fraud. The presidential commission he led met twice and disbanded, having found nothing. 

There are already states in which the majority of voters have voted by mail for years. There has been no widespread fraud in those states, and there's no reason to suspect there will be any around the country this year.

There most certainly will be computer glitches, ballots improperly signed or completed, human errors, people at the wrong precinct, folks who can't vote believing they can, mechanical breakdowns, and other unanticipated issues. A handful of ballots might be delayed or lost, as happens every election. 

None of that will be fraud because none of it will include the intent to deceive. People making mistakes and machines breaking down are annoying, sometimes downright maddening, but are neither intentional nor fraudulent.

Except in states where the outcome is obvious, election night will stretch into election days this year. It signifies nothing nefarious, although it will generate loud caterwauling, conspiracy theories aplenty, and many capitalized tweets.  

The votes will ultimately be counted, overseen by honorable public servants, and we'll know the results. Accuracy is considerably more important than speed, so our patience will be required. 


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