The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Pennsylvania’s vote-counting rules risk 2024 electoral chaos

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz at a campaign event in King of Prussia, Pa., on June 9. (Hannah Beier/Bloomberg)
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Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor whom former president Donald Trump endorsed for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat, won the GOP nomination this month after 17 days of uncertainty. The delay, following an interminable 2020 presidential vote-counting saga in the key swing state, highlights a major, continuing problem in U.S. elections: how states handle — or, as the case might be, mishandle — counting mail-in ballots. This is no idle concern; faith in elections is enhanced when the process appears to be orderly and fair — and eroded when it appears otherwise.

Mr. Trump and others have attacked mail-in voting as inherently flawed. In fact, several states, such as Colorado, Florida and Utah, run secure, efficient elections with massive numbers of absentee ballots. Voters enjoy the convenience of mail-in voting; fraud is negligible; and election officials report results quickly. What these states have in common is that they make it easy for voters to get and to cast absentee ballots — and for election workers to process them. Crucially, election officials may begin processing and counting absentee ballots before Election Day.

This is not the case in the majority of states. Only 10 allow processing and counting before Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twenty-three permit counting to commence while polls are open on Election Day, while 16 bar counting until polls close. In fact, Maryland and Pennsylvania restrict election workers from even processing absentee ballots before Election Day. The processing alone takes considerable time, particularly as election workers check voter signatures on ballot envelopes. In states that require election workers to give voters the chance to “cure” ballots that lack signatures, dates or other required information, an important protection, the process can take even longer.

A big reason Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate primary took so long to call was the state’s restrictions on absentee ballot processing. Election workers must start frantically sorting through mountains of mail ballots just as in-person voting starts, virtually guaranteeing a major delay in reporting results. Long waits for results give conspiracy theorists and peddlers of election misinformation, such as Mr. Trump, room to claim that fraud is occurring. Even for those disinclined to believe such mistruths, reporting delays spur frustration and shake confidence. The results could be particularly chaotic and damaging in a close presidential election in which Pennsylvania’s electoral votes would determine the outcome.

Pennsylvania’s leaders recognize this is a problem. It even seemed as though the state’s Republican legislature and Democratic governor would fix it before the 2020 vote. But partisan disagreements about other voting issues derailed that effort. The picture is similar in Maryland, where Gov. Larry Hogan (R) recently vetoed a bill that would have permitted pre-Election Day absentee ballot processing over only loosely related disagreements about ballot signature verification. This is an obvious reform that should not fall victim to partisan warfare. Maryland, Pennsylvania and all other jurisdictions that make it unduly hard to run elections with high numbers of mail-in ballots must change, now.