Americans had to wait more than a month after Election Day to learn that George W. Bush had beaten Al Gore in 2000. Declaring a winner involved recounting about 62,000 votes in a single state and a ruling from the Supreme Court.
If this year's election also seems to stretch out longer than it should, it won't be due to butterfly ballots or hanging chads. The election controversy is likely to revolve around—indeed, it already is revolving around—the expanded use of absentee ballots and mail-in voting as an alternative to having millions of people line up at polling places in the midst of a pandemic.
The tradeoff that comes with safer voting options is that absentee ballots typically take days or sometimes weeks to be counted. Georgia, New York, and other big states that relied heavily on mail-in voting for primary elections during the late spring and early summer experienced long delays in reporting results. It took New York more than a month to finish counting all of its absentee ballots—and larger volumes are expected in November.
"If it's very close, Florida 2000 will look like a picnic compared to what we could have," says Richard Hasen, a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of Election Meltdown (Yale University Press), a new book exploring how incompetent public officials and inflammatory rhetoric have created an environment where more voters distrust the basic processes of democracy.
Three weeks after the meltdown at this year's Iowa caucuses, where the use of new vote-recording software led to confusion and delayed caucus reporting, Hasen hosted a hastily organized conference with the goal of making suggestions for how states could better secure the legitimacy of the 2020 general election despite the challenges of COVID-19. In April, the group released a report with 14 recommendations ranging from expanding mail-in and early voting options to informing the public about the potential delays in reporting results. He says voters, candidates, and observers should anticipate a long lag time between the end of voting and getting official results.
While a few states have moved to full-scale vote-by-mail operations in recent years—and have done so without any uptick in voter fraud or disadvantage to either major party—that process takes time and money. This year, most states have neither. Instead, they are bootstrapping expanded vote-by-mail operations onto existing absentee ballot systems and hoping for the best.
In New Hampshire, for instance, all voters will be allowed to request absentee ballots and list "COVID-19" as a valid excuse for not showing up at the polls. Illinois and Massachusetts have decided to automatically send absentee ballots to all eligible voters at their last registered address. Wisconsin will send absentee ballot request forms to all voters and make absentee ballots available to anyone who returns the paperwork.
Most voters say they would rather cast their ballots in person, but they want the option of voting by mail, especially this year. A July poll by ABC News and The Washington Post found that 59 percent of Americans would prefer to vote in person. A July survey from the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of Americans believed voters should be allowed to vote by mail without giving an excuse, but Democrats (83 percent) were far more likely than Republicans (44 percent) to say so.
In-person voting is generally preferable because it limits common mistakes—like voting for too many candidates or failing to sign the ballot—that are more likely to happen when people vote absentee. Research by Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, found that an estimated 800,000 absentee ballots were rejected in 2008 by local election authorities, mostly due to mismatched signatures or because they arrived too late. Counting absentee ballots requires reviewing them one by one, and even though computers help, much of the work is still done by hand. That's going to be especially true in states without a true vote-by-mail infrastructure in place.
In short, even though fraud is not really a concern for mail-in balloting—there's a literal paper trail for every vote cast—there are good arguments in favor of in-person voting. It's faster and less vulnerable to user error. The goal of expanding vote-by-mail is not to abolish voting booths—only to provide an alternative for those who want it.
Politics, of course, are obscuring the granular nuance of this debate. President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked the legitimacy of mail-in voting, even though he voted in Florida's Republican primary in March using an absentee ballot and even though he has used his Twitter account to encourage Republicans in some swing states to do the same. He has also suggested that delays in reporting should be viewed with skepticism. "Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months, or even years later!" he tweeted on July 30.
That's a standard that would be nearly impossible to guarantee. Even in years without Bush-Gore levels of controversy, close elections can remain uncalled for days. Federal law allows 35 days for election officials to certify results.
Changing that deadline could be one way to avoid some of the possible chaos this year. There are 78 days between the election and the start of the new congressional session on January 3, but states are given less than half that time to certify results. Yuval Levin, a constitutional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, argues that Congress should extend that deadline and postpone the Electoral College's meeting, currently scheduled for December 14. "There's really no reason that has to happen in December. It could happen in January," he says. "A simple bill in Congress could move those dates back by two or three weeks and give states more time to count."
Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) has introduced a bill to give states until January 1 to finish counting presidential ballots, postponing the Electoral College's meeting until January 2.
But even allowing more time for counting ballots doesn't resolve the bigger potential political crisis looming over this election. In 2018, absentee and mailed-in ballots counted days and weeks after the polls closed swung the outcome of two congressional races in Orange County, California, that Republicans appeared to have won on Election Day. Hasen worries that something similar happening in key Senate races or presidential swing states could become a major controversy even if there's nothing nefarious going on.
"COVID-19 has put incredible stresses on the election system—and would have in the best of times, but we are not in the best of times," he says. "We are in times of high polarization, high distrust in elections, and we have a president who is fanning those flames."
Trump is unlikely to change his behavior between now and November. That's why it is incumbent on voters to be informed about the process and willing to accept that slow election results are more likely to be the result of the unprecedented circumstances than deliberate malfeasance.
"We all need to be prepared to expect and explain a long vote count in the days and perhaps weeks following Election Day," says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the political newsletter Sabato's Crystal Ball, published by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. Election Day could end up being "a mess" if polling places have to be closed at the last minute due to outbreaks and if it isn't feasible for states to expand early voting or vote-by-mail options.
"I fear it's going to be difficult," he adds, "and that conspiracy mongering will fill the void of an uncalled election."
Patience is not a guiding principle in American politics. This year, it might have to be.