Tech Aside, Delayed Election Results Could Become Norm

After the app troubles in the Iowa caucus, many are concerned about tech potentially delaying future election results, but it’s a trend toward absentee and mail-in ballots that actually has the potential to do so.

by James Q. Lynch, The Gazette / February 11, 2020
Voters cast their vote in Lexington, S.C., on Jan. 21, 2012. The House passed an election security measure Thursday that would require voting systems to use backup paper ballots in federal contests. (C. Aluka Berry/The State/TNS) TNS

(TNS) — You waited three days after the Iowa Democratic caucus to see the state party’s best shot at saying how the presidential candidates fared.

Get used to the delay.

Waiting days — maybe longer — for results from caucuses and elections is likely to become common, a University of Iowa political science professor predicts.

“The new normal will be that we’re going have to wait for results,” Caroline Tolbert said. “There’s a high likelihood we won’t know who’s president on the night of the 2020 general election, and I would call that the new normal.”

While attention last week went to the state party’s faulty technology, confusion at some precincts and surprise that the results hotline got pranked, another trend has been growing that doesn’t involve human or mechanical errors.

This fall, any delay in learning the results of the presidential election could in part be because 21 states are using absentee or mail-in ballots that, in some cases, will not be processed or counted until after the polls close Nov. 3.

The delay last week in learning the Iowa caucus results is nothing when compared with the nearly four-week delay in 2018 in hearing the outcomes of four U.S. House races in California’s Orange County.

The leader in an Arizona Senate race flipped during what Edward Foley of the Ohio State University election law program called the “overtime count” of provisional and mail-in ballots after the polls close on Election Day.

In the Iowa Democratic caucuses, Tolbert said, the use of preference cards for the first time was essentially a transition to paper ballots.

“Frankly, this was the first caucus that acted like an election,” she said. The Iowa caucuses have “never had a paper ballot,” Tolbert said.

“They just counted heads. We never reported our actual vote. We just reported out the state delegate equivalents,” Tolbert said.

The national party’s requirement to report more information this time added to the delay.

But in some ways, Iowa Democrats’ problems are small potatoes.

In Texas, Democratic Party officials say changes in how election results are reported will delay the final tally of the 228 delegates won by the presidential hopefuls in the upcoming March 3 Super Tuesday primary. Iowa has just 41 delegates in comparison.

Four of the states — Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Hawaii — hold all elections entirely by mail. In California, some counties now may conduct all-mail elections. And after 2020, all California counties will be allowed conduct all-mail elections.

Several states, including Nebraska and Minnesota, allow all-mail elections in small cities and counties, and Missouri allows all-mail elections for non-partisan issue elections.

Michigan voters approved no-reason absentee voting — similar to Iowa’s absentee voting law — and the secretary of state there has warned that the state may be the last to report results in the 2020 presidential election.

“It’s going to take, like, multiple days after the election to get all those ballots counted,” Tolbert said.

Michigan is expected to be a battleground state again this year, so its results could be critical in determining the winner of the presidential race.

This year, in an effort to be more transparent, the Iowa Democratic Party not only calculated state delegate equivalents but also reported raw body counts after caucusgoers formed preference groups and again when they realigned.

While the party achieved that goal, the new steps also confused some caucusgoers and may have lengthened the process, according to Tolbert and political science colleagues from around the country who observed three caucuses at Iowa City West High.

They saw people leave with their preference cards before precinct officials could record them. Caucusgoers around the state reported people leaving after the first alignment, especially if their preferred candidate was not viable.

Tolbert doubts the party “recognized that this transition to paper ballot was going to make this much difference.”

“It’s almost like it was under the radar,” she said.

However, the preference cards became important when the party’s phone app for reporting precinct results failed.

When that happened, Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice said, the caucuses became “a mess ... painful to watch.”

Iowa Republicans have had their own problems with caucus results.

In 2012, party officials declared Mitt Romney the winner.

“Two weeks later, they said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, (Rick) Santorum won,’” Tolbert said. “By that time, New Hampshire had voted, and that ship had sailed.”

So the adoption of mail-in ballots and all-mail elections is likely to continue — as well as delays in announcing results, Tolbert said.

No one wants to wait for caucus results, she said, but it’s important to maintain perspective.

“Nobody was killed. It wasn’t the coronavirus. It wasn’t a Boeing jet that went down and killed people,” she said.

And, Tolbert added, it’s probably a good thing that this early warning alarm for election officials everywhere went off in Iowa.

“You had blowback from the national media, from the Twitter-verse, from the social media world, from even the president and the whole national political establishment, and (Iowa Democrats) just held their own and they said, ‘We will not be pushed,’ and they just counted those ballots,” she said.

“You know, we’ve faced floods and how do we respond? We faced a trade war. How do we respond?” Tolbert said. “We have faith and we just kind of dig down and find a way out.”

The Iowa Democratic Party made some “huge mistakes” in the changes to the caucus rules, Tolbert said, “but I am proud of them for how they — and the Republican Party — just ignore this blowback and just get down to business and just do what was the right thing to do. There’s something very Iowan about it.”

©2020 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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