WASHINGTON – The country’s election officials have been warning for months that the sheer number of ballots sent by mail will delay the counting of votes in this year’s general election.
But for this reason there is still a consequence that is likely to come later this year than usual: some states are lagging behind in how they handle mailed ballots before this tabulating ever begins.
The mail-in ballot cannot be counted until election officials verify that it has been returned by a registered voter. The ballot is in an envelope without a sign, which is sent inside a large outer envelope with the voter’s name and space for signature. Names and often signatures must be checked against the voter registration database to verify the authenticity of the ballot.
If the ballot is not signed or does not match with the signature file, the voter may be contacted to resolve the dispute. It all takes time. Once verified, the ballots, inside the marked envelope, are set aside until the counting begins.
The timeline of the Federal Electoral Assistance Commission, set up after the chaotic 2000 presidential election, notes that states with a long history of handling large quantities of ballots sent to them begin scrutiny about 20 days before election day. States In 35 states, the process begins early, and in 16 of those states, election officials can begin verification as soon as they receive the mailed ballots.
“If your goal is to know as much as possible on election night, it will be very important to be able to process them in advance,” said Ben Howland, the agency’s commissioner.
For the first time, election officials were allowed to begin the process early during the June primary, Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams told the House Homeland Security Committee last week.
“It took us a good week to count all the ballots, but without it it would have been much longer,” he said. The same is planned for the state general elections starting September 21.
But in 11 other states, including the presidential battlefields of Michigan and Pennsylvania, election officials may not even begin the process until election day. And in the other three states, they can’t start until the polls close.
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During the Pennsylvania primary in June, the mail-in ballot was counted even a week after the election. Pennsylvania’s state department, which administers the election, is urging the state legislature to act quickly to allow the process to begin three weeks before this year’s general election, a government proposal, Tom Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said.
Giving states more time to process will not solve the problem of ballots that are late, as mail-in ballots are rejected. During this month in Michigan, for example, about 60 percent of mail-in ballots were rejected because they came after the legal deadline.
The long processing window allows voters to correct their errors, by cutting the number of votes that can be verified.
Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said that was one of the reasons why this should happen before election night.
Once the mail-in ballot is verified, another issue will be implemented. They often take longer to calculate, especially when voters fail to follow instructions on how to fill blanks to indicate their preferences. Small bipartisan groups gather to examine disputed ballots, trying to determine the motive of voters.
“There are states where ballots will be fought by ballot,” Potter said.
Rick Pildis, an election law expert at the New York University School of Law, said legal action is guaranteed until local canvassing boards settle disputes amicably.
He said, “The state government will take this decision if a lawsuit is filed or if these ballots are treated differently in different parts of the state on the assumption that the state’s vote is sufficient.”
There is a constant message from election administrators and legal experts. They urge voters to cast their vote whenever possible or request and return their mail-in ballot as early as possible.