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States Expanded Voting Access for the Pandemic. The Changes Might Stick.

As the presidential election drags on, many election officials say more state and federal money, coupled with new laws to create a more efficient and expansive mail-in voting system, would shorten future counts.

mailing ballots
Shutterstock/Anna Hoychuk
LANCASTER, Pa. — With one envelope slicer, three ballot scanners and around 175 people, it took election officials roughly 37 consecutive hours to process 91,000 mail-in ballots in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

“It’s taking a little longer to scan than we had hoped,” said Randall Wenger, chief clerk of the county’s Board of Elections, speaking over the click-click-click of the envelope slicer around noon Wednesday, “but we’re getting it done.”

As many other states wrapped up counting record numbers of mail-in ballots, the tabulating in many counties in the Keystone State continued for days after the polls closed. Unlike many other states, Pennsylvania law prevents local officials from beginning their count until 7 a.m. on Election Day. Some counties waited until Wednesday to begin counting.

Many election officials hope that pandemic-related policies that made it easier to vote by mail, leading to a surge of mail-in ballots, will outlive the health crisis. And they say more state and federal money, coupled with new laws to create a more efficient and expansive mail-in voting system, would shorten future counts.

The popularity of mail-in voting this election could put pressure on state lawmakers to make many COVID-19 changes permanent.

“Election officials, lawmakers and voters have really changed the way they think about voting in a lot of places around the country,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting rights group at New York University Law School.

“There were a lot of voters that never had the option [before this year] to mail in ballots and I think they were encouraged. It will change people’s perspectives and demand on lawmakers.”

Voters of both parties, Morales-Doyle said, benefited from having more options to cast their ballots. Imagine the polling place lines, he said, if most voters this year instead had to vote on Election Day while also abiding by social distancing rules. The lines “would have been amazingly long.”

States also are learning which voting policies work or need more fine-tuning, after the time it’s taken to count ballots in Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Months ago, election officials at the state and local level warned that the huge spike in mail-in ballots would mean longer tallying times.

State laws vary. In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, for example, officials could not begin counting mail-in ballots until Election Day. However, in states such as Florida, where officials could begin processing ballots weeks before the election, results were available soon after polls closed.

Some local election officials around the country also have expressed frustration with what they say is a lack of clarity in voting laws that make the counting process longer. The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to overturn a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to extend the mail-in ballot deadline. However, the U.S. Supreme Court still could act related to the case.

And guidance from the Democratic Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar on how to attempt to correct defective ballots — a process known as “curing” that takes place every election — changed over the weeks and up to the day before Election Day, leading to different interpretations by election officials.

“Any election should have clear, black-and-white rules that everyone understands,” said Josh Parsons, the Republican chair of the county commission in Lancaster County, which helps run local elections. “And, certainly, with an election like this, with this much riding on it, to be changing the rules and changing the guidance right before or during the election, that’s a problem. And it’s caused a lot of confusion around the state.”

Parsons said he supports starting to canvass earlier than Election Day. That change is supported by county officials across the state, said Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

In early September, the Republican-majority Pennsylvania House passed a bill that would have allowed counties to start processing mail-in ballots three days before Election Day. But the measure also would have banned drop boxes for collecting ballots and allowed out-of-county residents to be certified poll watchers. Democrats wanted more processing time and opposed the drop box ban and changes to poll-watcher rules, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf pledged to veto the bill. The two parties could not agree on a compromise before the election.

“I think given seeing what we are happening here, given how long it’s taking for this to happen, our counties will absolutely push for a change to the law to allow for an earlier start moving forward,” Schaefer said.

The wait for a final tally in Pennsylvania and other states could have been prevented, said Amber McReynolds, the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, which has advocated and worked with state legislatures in states such as New Jersey, Nevada and Vermont to implement mail-in voting policies. For months, she said, she tried unsuccessfully to persuade Republican-held legislatures in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to pass laws that would have made the voting and counting process run more smoothly. 

“They refused to act,” she said. “Basically, what happened is exactly as we said it would be, but we think there’s an opportunity to improve. It’s hard for them to ignore their customers. There will definitely be more changes coming and a lot of these changes will be made permanent.”

With such a dramatic increase in mail-in voting and new momentum to expand voting access, McReynolds said she would work with state lawmakers in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Rhode Island and other states to implement better policies.

It should be a bipartisan effort, she said, which is not unprecedented. In the past decade, she helped shape Colorado’s vote-by-mail system — seen by many experts as a national model — by working with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. More conservative-leaning states continue to expand mail-in voting access, she said, including Montana, Nebraska and Utah. There’s no room for partisanship in election policies, McReynolds said.

Overall, Election Day had fewer problems with lines or voting equipment malfunctions than other recent U.S. elections, and many voting rights experts attribute this success to the more than 100 million Americans who cast a vote early, either by mail or in person, in the weeks leading up to Tuesday.

“I think this is evidence that when we expand voting access to give people more options to vote, whether it’s by mail, curbside voting or extended early voting, we have fewer problems on Election Day,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, a voting rights organization with 30 state chapters nationwide.

In states that did not adjust their voting policies for the pandemic, such as Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, there were long lines and other issues on Election Day.

The challenge ahead, though, is whether these policies, many of which were put in place through executive action by secretaries of state or were passed by lawmakers specifically for this election, will last beyond 2020.

In Kentucky, for example, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams and the nonpartisan State Board of Elections came to an agreement earlier this year to eliminate the excuse requirement for mail-in ballots and expand in-person early voting. But as former Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson said in a press call this week, those policies were temporary and it’s unclear if the changes will be codified for later elections.

Similarly, secretaries of state from both parties in Ohio and Michigan took unilateral action to help make the voting process easier during this election, but those policies may only be temporary.

At the federal level, a bill in Congress, named for the late lawmaker and civil rights leader John Lewis, would beef up federal oversight of elections and restore some racial discrimination safeguards that were eliminated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013. Democrats in Congress have also pushed for additional money for local election administration.

Earlier this year, the Brennan Center said states and counties needed an additional $4 billion to properly administer elections throughout the country.

“Election administrators, no matter their political affiliation, want to do a good job, and their jobs become much harder when they don’t have the resources to do that,” Morales-Doyle said. “The resources required to pull off large-scale mail-in voting are different than the resources needed to pull off large-scale in-person voting. It creates a huge burden.”

This burden, he said, becomes much more acute in smaller jurisdictions that may lack the sources and personnel needed to run an election with record-levels of mail-in voting.

The pandemic is not over, and elections will continue to take place over the coming months. There will likely be two runoff elections for U.S. Senate seats in Georgia in January and several high-profile mayoral contests in New York City and Minneapolis, and gubernatorial elections next year in New Jersey and Virginia. While the pandemic still rages, laws that make voting more accessible will remain invaluable, Morales-Doyle said.

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