counting ballot papers during election
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By now, the nightmare scenario is well established. Because President Donald Trump has scared off Republicans from voting by mail, many of them flock to polling places on Election Day instead. Democrats, meanwhile, stick with their plans to vote from home. (Out of nine million voters who requested mail ballots in several battleground states as of this week, 52 percent are Democrats while just 28 percent are Republican.)

As a consequence, the early returns are misleading. Come Election Night, with just the in-person votes recorded, Trump appears to have won in swing states, even though the vast majority of votes were cast absentee and have not yet been counted. That night, and in the days that follow, as absentee ballots are still being processed and tabulated, Trump prematurely claims victory, accuses mailed-in ballots of being fraudulent, and sues to stop the counting. The litigation makes its way through the courts, eventually reaching the Supreme Court, which, with a newly installed conservative justice having replaced Ruth Bader Ginsburg, rules in favor of the president, thereby handing him re-election. (In Tuesday night’s debate, Trump said he would be “counting” on the court to “look at the ballots.”)

The good news, though, is that there’s a way for states to counter the playbook Trump has already signaled he will follow: Allow elections officials to begin processing absentee ballots early. The Bipartisan Policy Center recommends that states permit at least seven days of processing before Election Day. That merely means opening the outer envelope, sorting the ballots into the correct precinct, verifying the signatures, and preparing them to go through a vote-counting machine. That way, on Election Day, all you need do is put the ballots through the machine to know the results.

It’s a system already in place in states that have a long history of older and rural voters who routinely vote absentee, including in Florida and Ohio. In Florida, for instance, elections officials begin processing and counting absentee ballots as early as 22 days before Election Day. Ohio allows for the ballots to be processed and counted before Election Day, but the results cannot be disclosed until after the polls close. It makes sense, then, that a number of other states have adopted similar procedures.

The bad news is that Republican officials in three swing states, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, are blocking legislation that could allow for the early processing of absentee ballots—purposefully making it take longer to get the election results. In other words, they are engineering the absentee vote counting delays that Trump is already planning to complain about and sue over.

In each of these states, current law allows absentee vote processing to begin either on or after Election Day. Over the last several months, county clerks and advocates have pushed for that period to be extended, all to enable elections officials to begin processing the votes more quickly, so there is less of a delay in announcing the outcome to the public. But in each of those states, such bills have been blocked by Republican leadership in the state houses. All of those states have a Democratic governor and a Democratic secretary of state pushing for such bills, but Republicans control the legislatures. In Pennsylvania, legislation was introduced in June to begin processing and counting ballots early, but it went nowhere. In Wisconsin, Democrats introduced a bill in May to begin processing ballots early, but not tabulate them until after the polls closed. That, too, faced GOP resistance.

In Michigan, there has been slightly more progress. After months of advocacy by county clerks, including Republicans, to give elections officials the ability to get a head start on processing absentee ballots, the Michigan state house passed a bill last week after sitting on it for months to extend early absentee vote processing—by just one day. That’s better than nothing, but it’s hardly enough time to meet the needs of elections officials.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told me it only gives elections officials 10 hours to start processing ballots on Election Day, which includes additional administrative work. Some clerks have estimated that they would only net three hours that day for processing ballots.

GOP leaders, however, were initially ready to embrace a much longer period of early processing months ago. A source familiar with the matter told me that Michigan Speaker Lee Chatfield supported the idea when it was first being floated. “He was like, ‘Yeah, this shouldn’t be a big deal, it shouldn’t be partisan,’” the source said. “And then the president started tweeting.”

Trump has frequently tweeted lies and misinformation about vote by mail, including that it leads to widespread voter fraud, he has directed much of his anger at Michigan. He threatened to cut off funding to the state after Benson sent all voters an absentee ballot application. He has also complained about other states taking long periods of time to complete their vote count, such as New York.

Because of Trump’s attempts to politicize and discredit vote by mail, any efforts to enhance or expand the option have had to be treated delicately. In Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Democrats brought forward the legislation to extend absentee ballot processing periods, leading Republicans to reject the proposal out of pocket, but largely left the lobbying work to county clerks and elections officials to try to convince GOP lawmakers how desperately they needed the change.

That strategy worked in Georgia and Iowa, both of which passed laws to process ballots early—Georgia will allow the process to begin two weeks and a day before Election Day; Iowa will start the Saturday before Election Day.

But since that hasn’t worked in three of the most hotly-contested states in the upcoming presidential election, it will be on Democrats and activists with power and influence to start raising hell about it now—in the weeks before the election—alerting the public about the tactic GOP officials are using to slow down the vote count.

Republicans are not responding to their stated concerns about vote by mail by making it easier to count absentee ballots quickly; they are making it harder. By doing so, they may well be purposefully manufacturing the crisis that Trump wants to use to contest the election results.

Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a staff writer for Time magazine.