The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What’s more important than a timely election result: Counting all the votes

Holden Middleton joins her mom at the voting booth at Frank McCourt High School on New York's Upper West Side on Tuesday.
Holden Middleton joins her mom at the voting booth at Frank McCourt High School on New York's Upper West Side on Tuesday. (Richard Drew/AP)

IT WAS unclear early Wednesday whether President Trump or Democrat Joe Biden had won the presidential election — and there was reason to anticipate the outcome might not be known for some time. The final result may hinge on the count of mail-in ballots in several Midwestern states, something that could require days to complete. If so, it’s essential that Americans remain calm and patient — and that attempts by Mr. Trump and other Republicans to disrupt or discredit the vote count be rejected.

In early results, Mr. Trump performed relatively well, leading the hotly contested states of Florida, North Carolina and Texas. But he was still well short of an electoral college majority, and Mr. Biden was leading in Arizona, a formerly red state. In the potentially decisive states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Mr. Trump was ahead — and in tweets early Wednesday he claimed “a big WIN” and charged that Democrats “are trying to STEAL the Election.” In fact, hundreds of thousands of valid votes are outstanding in those states, and counting them is not theft, but democracy. Mr. Trump’s motive is transparent: A substantial majority of the untabulated mail-in votes come from Democrats.

According to official figures, registered Democrats outvoted registered Republicans by a margin of more than 1 million in the 2.5 million mail-in ballots Pennsylvania received as of Tuesday. Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin together reported receiving 6.5 million mail ballots as of Election Day, and did not begin counting them until then. It should be no surprise if they are not finished by Wednesday. Early Wednesday, Mr. Biden rightly called for patience as all the votes are counted and predicted that he would win the Midwestern battlegrounds when they were.

Mr. Trump offers the confused and groundless argument that the counting of votes after Election Day is corrupt, especially in the case of mailed ballots that will arrive in the coming days. On Monday, he tweeted that the longer count would “induce violence in the streets.” Thankfully, there has been no sign of such trouble so far — some 100 million Americans voted before Tuesday either in person or by mail with few disruptions, and no major incidents were reported by late on Election Day. If there is violence, the president will stand culpable for inciting it.

If left undisturbed, state officials say they will be able to complete their tallies in a matter of days. Even though seven Pennsylvania counties will not even begin counting mail-in ballots until Wednesday, the state’s chief election official has said she expects the process to be nearly done by Friday. Michigan is on a similar timetable. That it will take even that long is largely due to Mr. Trump’s campaign, which encouraged Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature to reject proposals to start the processing of mail-in ballots before Election Day.

The Trump campaign was planning court challenges to slow or stop the counting of votes — a sign that it does not anticipate a legitimate election victory. It will likely seek to reverse a decision by the Pennslvania Supreme Court requiring that ballots that arrive between Wednesday and 5 p.m. Friday be counted. The U.S. Supreme Court chose not to intervene in the case before the election, and it should not do so now. Nor should responsible Republican leaders abet any attempt by Mr. Trump to disrupt the lawful counting of legitimate ballots, or cast doubt on the results. It is time for them to support U.S. democracy against Mr. Trump’s threats to undermine it.

Read more:

Richard H. Pildes: Pennsylvania could be a center of chaos this election. It didn’t have to be this way.

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center warns that the president is doing the work of our foreign adversaries by undermining the legitimacy of the U.S. election. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evan Vucci/AP/The Washington Post)

Donna Edwards: We can have confidence in the election results — if we have patience

Michele L. Norris: Will this election permanently change how we vote? Let’s hope so.

Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman: Trump ends where he began: With one final effort to corrupt the election