The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Saving democracy requires voting early — and counting fast

Election workers stuff absentee ballot applications at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections office in Charlotte on Sept. 4.
Election workers stuff absentee ballot applications at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections office in Charlotte on Sept. 4. (Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images)

With President Trump threatening to create a constitutional crisis if he loses, it is up to state legislatures and officials responsible for counting our ballots to make it as hard as possible for Trump to swing a wrecking ball at our democracy.

It would be bad enough in a normal time for Trump to respond to polling numbers running in Joe Biden’s favor by lying to cast doubt on the election’s legitimacy. “The Democrats,” he said this past weekend in Nevada, “are trying to rig this election because it’s the only way they are going to win.”

At best, Trump is engaged in preemptive ego protection. At worst, he is opening the way for his supporters to reject a Biden victory and launch disruptive resistance efforts. He may also be trying to rationalize — God forbid — the use of federal authority to block the Democrat’s assumption of power.

Democratic Party strategist and lawyer Marc Elias says that flaws in ballot design are often overlooked but have huge repercussions on elections. (Video: The Washington Post)

But Trump is not launching this attack on our democratic system in a vacuum. Because of the pandemic, this is an election in which unprecedented numbers of Americans will vote by mail.

This is no problem in states such as Washington and Colorado that have well-established mail voting systems. It is an enormous challenge in states where massive mail balloting is something new, and where antiquated laws don’t even allow election officials to certify ballots and slit open envelopes to get legitimate votes ready for counting until after the polls close.

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Fortunately, states are responding, but about a dozen still have highly restrictive laws that will slow the tallying of mail ballots.

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It is not paranoia to imagine that if fragmentary early returns show Trump ahead in key states, he would claim victory and announce that all further counts are fraudulent.

In an interview Wednesday, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson did not mention Trump, but she described the problem with precision: “I am mindful of the fact that every minute that passes between when the polls close and when we do announce those final results provides an opportunity for bad actors to sow seeds of doubt in the electorate about the accuracy of our results and the sanctity of our election.”

Kathy Boockvar, the secretary of state in Pennsylvania, said that there is nothing mysterious about the process of counting mail ballots. It’s just more cumbersome. “It’s not rocket science,” she told me. “It’s basic math. You have this many hours and this many ballots and you have equipment and people . . . working around the clock.”

Both Boockvar and Benson heap praise on local election officials trying to get things right. “Many counties are planning on literally operating 24/7 until they’re done,” Boockvar said. “So it’s not like they’re going to go home at midnight and there’ll be nothing for eight hours. They are planning to stay there until it’s done.”

But the laws in both Michigan and Pennsylvania — two of the states most likely to decide the election — will make it harder to get the job done quickly.

Boockvar, along with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, is asking the Republican state legislature to allow officials to begin processing ballots three weeks before Election Day, though a compromise at 10 days, she said, would be a big improvement on the status quo.

Benson wants the GOP legislature in her state to give local officials a week, but so far the state Senate has approved only a 10-hour window, which, she said, amounts to only three hours in practice given various extra reporting requirements legislators tacked on.

She said she has pointed GOP skeptics toward states with Republican legislatures or secretaries of state or both, including Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio, where the law already provides for reasonable amounts of time to process mail ballots.

“It shouldn’t be political,” Benson said.

But unfortunately, in 2020, with Donald Trump as president, common sense is a divisive concept.

Other states that have eased the processing of mail ballots include California, historically very slow in providing final counts. It’s not a swing state, but it has a big effect on the popular vote. The popular vote count, unfortunately, doesn’t decide who is president, but it can condition how results are analyzed on election night. A healthy Biden popular vote lead could hamper Trump’s ability to distort the public’s understanding of what transpired.

Trump, as my Post Opinion colleague Greg Sargent shrewdly observed, is simply “trying to get within cheating distance.” It will be harder for him to cheat, lie, distort and divide if we follow the advice of the Bipartisan Policy Center and give election administrators “a chance to do their jobs well.” Rarely have our liberties depended so much on simple competence.

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Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: A short-circuited voting process in Pennsylvania

Richard H. Pildes: The vote-by-mail fight is over. Trump ended it.

Suraj Patel: Voting by mail can work, but not until we fix some things

Marc A. Thiessen: Mail-in voting could accidentally disenfranchise millions of voters

Jennifer Rubin: With anxiety over voting by mail, we need a new strategy

Jennifer Rubin: Trump lets on that his attack on voting-by-mail is fake

Jonathan Capehart: Vote like Miss Sylvia: Hand-deliver your mail-in or absentee ballot