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The Perils of Slow Vote-Counting and Delayed Election Results

What happens if Election Day lasts for weeks?

The short, brisk answer to that question is that January 6 is happening — as we learned dramatically this week when Cassidy Hutchinson, a young former aide to Mark Meadows, testified that former President Donald Trump is at the center of the chaos and violence of placed that day.

The slightly longer answer is that there is so much noise about how votes should be counted that we’ve seen the same dysfunctional scene twice since 2020 in the same condition.

First came the presidential election, where Trump seized on a slow count of votes in Pennsylvania to scream fraud, declare victory and cast doubt on Joe Biden’s victory there and elsewhere.

Round two came about a month ago when the former president raised the specter of electoral fraud again and urged Dr. Mehmet Oz, his favorite candidate in the race for the United States Senate seat in Pennsylvania, to announce the victory early. make in a Republican primaries – a week into the ballot count.

Oz sidestepped Trump’s suggestion and ultimately won, by just 951 votes. Trump’s insinuations about crime disappeared as quickly as they appeared.

But in an angry, polarized nation, it was a reminder of how easily a lagging vote count can be abused to discredit election results. And it begs the question of what will happen in November, when some by-election counts are inevitably postponed — or in 2024, when the stakes will be immeasurably higher.

Charles H. Stewart III, an election analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the problem is unlikely to go away anytime soon because, for a mix of reasons related to civil rights and convenience, American voters have a role to play. played in creating.

“Over the decades, we have enjoyed an expansion in ballot box access and ease of voting,” he said. “And nine times out of ten that expansion has happened without taking into account the blocking and cracking of the election administration.”

Translation: Many voters, including Republican voters, love the shift to mailed ballots, early voting, voting within minutes of registration, drop boxes, and other efforts to make voting easier and more accessible. But those innovations make voting more expensive and complex — and governments haven’t raised money or changed electoral laws to deal with it.

Outside experts say election officials already need more than $2 billion to replace aging voting machines and improve security against both physical and cyber-attacks. And that doesn’t include the cost of improvements such as fast voice scanners, envelope-opening machines, and extra staff that would make counting faster. Some of these ideas are discussed on Capitol Hill. Elections always take a long time because of the days of backstage work, validating counts and verifying questionable ballots, which must be done even if the winners are declared early.

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

Lawyers left and right see different problems.

California can be particularly tricky because of how slow and uneven it counts in votes. In 2018, The Associated Press called out one Central Valley congressional race for only Representative David Valadao, a Republican to make a rare withdrawal when the Democrat took the lead weeks later.

More recently, the slow counting of votes in last month’s primaries caused a shift in the final results from the initial counts. On Election Night, the early leader of the Los Angeles mayoral contest, the mall developer and… self-proclaimed crime fighter was Rick Caruso. He now follows a more liberal Democrat, Karen Bass, who has claimed that “Los Angeles cannot arrest itself from crime.”

Progressives loudly lamented how the early results — in Los Angeles and of the San Francisco District Attorney’s successful recall — were taken as a warning about the potential for crime, including in this paper. Some progressive prosecutors won, such as Diana Becton in Contra Costa County, whose campaign was received a $1 million late ad blitz fund by a PAC linked to liberal financier George Soros.

On the right, Trump and like-minded candidates are quick to claim fraud when a slow vote count puts one of them at risk or defeats them. And Republican office holders, increasingly hostile to postal voting, may see little incentive to make it work better.

But there’s a touch of hypocrisy in 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 was actually “installed by the deep-state cabal” — only to state that “Nevadans made their voices heard” when he won the state primaries in mid-June.

When lagging election results give rise to misinformation, intentional or unintentional, the obvious remedy is to count votes faster and identify winners faster. So why don’t states do that?

In California, at least a quiet count is basically state policy. The state is embracing postal ballots—about two-thirds of the votes are cast through the mail or letterbox—and accepting correctly stamped ballots up to a week late. In a state that sends out 22 million absentee ballots for every election, processing takes time.

In some other states, the switch to postal voting has engulfed election officials who cannot afford high-speed equipment to process ballot envelopes. And while 37 states allow at least some ballot processing once they come in, laws in other states force workers to wait until election day before even opening the ballot envelopes, let alone counting the votes and counting the votes. verifying signatures.

Such was the case this spring in Pennsylvania, which sent nearly 910,000 ballots to voters who asked. To complicate the task, a misprint forced a days-long manual recount of some 21,000 ballots.

That said, states like Oregon, Colorado and Utah seamlessly conduct elections by mail and report the results immediately. And Wisconsin, which also bans the opening of ballots before polling day, managed to report the results of the 2020 general election the day after polls closed at 3 a.m.

“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 on ballots, which speeds up counting significantly, she said. But the purchase of additional high-speed tables has also allowed the city to process more than twice as many ballots in the same time.

Just because the counts can be accelerated doesn’t mean they will be. The next two elections face challenges that could extend the counts even further.

One is a potential shortage of polling station members, who are deterred from volunteering because of threats of violence. Another is a shortage of funds as some states have barred aid from outside groups that have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to fund local election work in 2020.

A third is an exodus of seasoned election officials, who are retiring en masse after the pressures of the 2020 election cycle. Leading secure elections is an extraordinarily complex task, and that institutional knowledge will be difficult to replace, said Jennifer Morrell, a former election officer in Colorado and Utah and now a partner in The Election Group, a consultancy.

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

“Overall, I think election administration is better than ever today,” Ms Morrell said. “The flip side is that misinformation and election conspiracies are bigger than ever. I am very concerned.”


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

Doug Mills, the noted New York Times photographer, always reminds me not to take scenes on Capitol Hill for granted, even though I’ve seen them a thousand times. So I always try to take a fresh look at photo reporting, striving to create frames with aesthetic and narrative value.

When I covered the January 6 House committee hearing with testimony from Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to President Donald J. Trump’s last chief of staff, Mark Meadows, I was in “austerity” — meaning I’m the had freedom to move me around the room, as opposed to being in the “pit”, 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 to the side, photographers formed a curve with their cameras, and the audience, even the stenographers, concentrated on the witness. So I decided to frame all those characters, take people into the hearing room and hopefully make them feel like they’re there.

Thank you for reading. Enjoy the 4th of July holiday; we’ll see you tuesday.

— Blake

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