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Q&A

Talking Election Problems with the Brennan Center

Accuracy takes time. But counting every vote — and counting every vote correctly — is worth the wait.

Published: November 2, 2020

Cross-posted from FiveThirtyEight

Last Friday, FiveThirtyEight talked with Derek Tisler, fellow with the Bren­nan Center for Justice’s Demo­cracy Program, and coau­thor of The Roadmap to the Offi­cial Count in an Unpre­ced­en­ted Elec­tion, which covers the meas­ures elec­tion offi­cials are taking against fraud and ensur­ing every vote is coun­ted accur­ately. The conver­sa­tion has been lightly edited.

Some­thing we’re trying to help read­ers at FiveThirtyEight under­stand is what the expec­ted vote might look like on elec­tion night — which states will have results, whether there will be a red or blue shift in the ballots repor­ted, etc. But a key part of this is under­stand­ing what mech­an­isms are in place to help ensure a fair and accur­ate vote count.

We were hoping you could help walk read­ers through that broadly. How much of the voting count­ing process is the same state to state and how much of this varies? Addi­tion­ally, what new chal­lenges are posed by Covid-19? 

The basic steps for count­ing votes are the same in every state and they’ve been the same for decades. Elec­tion offi­cials: 1) verify voter eligib­il­ity (after receiv­ing mail ballots or while check­ing in voters who cast their ballots in person); 2) count all the ballots and release unof­fi­cial totals to the public and the media; 3) double and triple check their math; and then 4) once they are sure they have all the votes coun­ted, certify their final results.

Steps 3 and 4 always happen after elec­tion night, and usually after we know who won the pres­id­ency based on the medi­a’s projec­tions. Indeed, the offi­cial vote count­ing process in each state typic­ally does not finish until two to five weeks after Elec­tion Day. And it will be no differ­ent this year. Elec­tion offi­cials are confid­ent that they will meet their certi­fic­a­tion dead­lines.

What will be differ­ent this year is the timing in between the four steps. And this will vary consid­er­ably among states for two main reas­ons.

First, people choose to vote differ­ently in each state, and the count­ing process looks differ­ent for each method of voting. When you vote in a polling place, the process of check­ing in voters and veri­fy­ing eligib­il­ity is done before the voter casts their ballot. When you vote by mail, the process of check­ing in voters and veri­fy­ing eligib­il­ity is done after the voter casts their ballot, but before the ballot is coun­ted.

Because of this shift in when veri­fic­a­tion is done, mail ballots tend to take longer to count than in-person ballots. So in states where more voters are cast­ing their ballots by mail, we can expect the processing and count­ing to take longer as well. And because of the pandemic, most states are seeing a huge surge in mail voting.

Second, each state sets its own rules for when to begin count­ing mail ballots. Many battle­ground states — includ­ing Arizona, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, and North Caro­lina — allow elec­tion offi­cials to begin veri­fy­ing voter inform­a­tion on mail ballot envel­opes, open­ing those envel­opes, and even count­ing the ballots before Elec­tion Day.

But in Michigan, count­ing can’t begin until Elec­tion Day, and in Pennsylvania and Wiscon­sin, elec­tion offi­cials can’t even begin veri­fy­ing and open­ing envel­opes until Elec­tion Day. So even as elec­tion offi­cials are follow­ing largely similar steps in each state to determ­ine and verify the accur­acy of results, these vari­ations in state rules influ­ence how fast they can release unof­fi­cial results to the public.

Are there any states where you’re track­ing poten­tial prob­lems closely? Or if not, are there types of prob­lems you’re zero­ing in on across states?

I’m most focused on states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wiscon­sin, where we expect unof­fi­cial results to be released over a longer period of time than we’ve seen in the past. But it is not because I expect any prob­lems to occur with the actual count­ing of votes, or that slower count­ing should lead us to doubt the accur­acy of results. My concern is that people might try to take advant­age of the uncer­tainty that exists on elec­tion night to create an illu­sion of chaos or ille­git­im­acy.

In some states, the vote count will climb consid­er­ably after elec­tion offi­cials release initial unof­fi­cial results on elec­tion night. This should­n’t be a cause for concern, though. Typic­ally, this happens for three reas­ons.

First, there are ballots that were received on or before Elec­tion Day (both mail and in-person), but that elec­tion offi­cials did not have time to count on Elec­tion Day. Second, in some states, there are ballots that were cast by a voter on or before Elec­tion Day, but did not arrive by mail until after Elec­tion Day. Third, there are provi­sional ballots, which are cast on or before Elec­tion Day but can’t be coun­ted until after because some addi­tional veri­fic­a­tion is needed.

In all three cases, there is noth­ing differ­ent about these votes from the ones that are added to totals on elec­tion night. They are all legit­im­ate votes cast by voters on or before Elec­tion Day. The order in which elec­tion offi­cials count them — or how long it takes to count them — does not make them worth more or less in the final total.

There is some spec­u­la­tion that a cyber­at­tack or tech­nical fail­ure could disrupt the report­ing of results. But if that were to happen, there is almost always a back-up in place that elec­tion offi­cials can fall back on to verify results, includ­ing an oppor­tun­ity to double-check numbers or correct any errors in a later step.

Accur­acy takes time. But count­ing every vote — and count­ing every vote correctly — is worth the wait.

One last thing — elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion is chron­ic­ally under­fun­ded in the United States which means states and elec­tion offi­cials often don’t have the resources they need, which can create prob­lems in their own right, like long lines, equip­ment that malfunc­tions, etc. How is that espe­cially under strain this year, given the pandemic?

When the pandemic struck the United States, elec­tion offi­cials recog­nized imme­di­ately that the systems they’d used for years would need to be bolstered in ways they’d never imagined. They also knew that their budgets would­n’t sustain the expense, and they appealed to Congress for help. States ulti­mately received $400 million in fund­ing — short of what was needed but still signi­fic­ant.

Now, as we head toward the final days of the elec­tion and as an unpre­ced­en­ted number of voters have already cast their ballot, I’m hope­ful that the elec­tion will be safe and secure. This is in part because of the import­ant work of elec­tion offi­cials, who have worked tire­lessly to expand voting options and protect the health of voters and elec­tion work­ers. This is also because of public support. People have helped spread aware­ness of differ­ent voting options, voted early to reduce stress on elec­tion day systems, and even flooded elec­tion offices with applic­a­tions to serve as poll work­ers.