WASHINGTON — Battleground states that could decide the presidential election face a shrinking window to take action to allow the processing of absentee ballots before Election Day to cut down on the days or even weeks it could take to have final results.
But in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, two key swing states, efforts have stalled in Republican-controlled state legislatures. And in a third crucial state, Michigan, a push to begin the counting process several days before the election is dead. Lawmakers there instead chose to give election officials just a 10-hour head-start.
It means that outcomes in the three Rust Belt states could remain in doubt long after polls close Nov. 3, the result of a unprecedented high volume of mail-in ballots expected amid the coronavirus.
And because of the critical importance of these three states – President Donald Trump narrowly won each in 2016, but polling shows Democratic Joe Biden ahead in all three – the outcome of the entire presidential election is likely to be on hold as well.
Of the 16 most contested states in the presidential election, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Maine and New Hampshire don’t allow the processing of counting absentee ballots to begin until Election Day. Michigan was in the same category until last week. Although Michigan state lawmakers voted to allow ballots to be opened 10 hours before polls close, experts say such a small jump-start will have little impact.
“It’s like taking a band-aid and putting it on a gushing wound,” said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, which has lobbied states to give election officials the ability to process mail ballots in advance of the election. “The three states that remain as the most problematic are Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.”
The outlook in these three states – which each have Democratic governors and legislatures with Republican majorities – comes as Trump during the first presidential election ramped up his assault on mail-voting with several unfounded and misleading claims alleging widespread fraud. He declined to pledge that he would hold off on declaring victory before all absentee votes are counted and bemoaned the amount of time it could take to count ballots.
With the election just one month way, any action by these or other states would need to happen soon. Mail-voting is already underway in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan along with several other states.
Before counting absentee ballots, election officials must undertake several procedures: open the envelopes containing the ballots, match the signatures on the ballots to registration rolls, verify the bar codes on the envelopes; and in some states remove a “secrecy envelope” containing the ballot from the envelope it’s mailed in. Battleground states like Florida and Arizona allow this process to begin weeks before Election Day, but other states must wait until Nov. 3.
In Wisconsin, municipal clerks have long sought the ability to count at least some ballots before Election Day, but Republicans who control the legislature have been unable to reach an agreement on the issue. Legislative leaders have no plans to come back into session before Election Day, even though Wisconsin’s top Republican, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, has argued the ballot-counting law should be changed.
More than 1.2 million Wisconsin voters have requested mail ballots for the election. Democrats and nonpartisan entities who sued over a number of the state’s election laws have sought to allow absentee ballots to be counted before Election Day.
U.S. District Judge William Conley hasn’t gone along with that request, but last month he did agree to allow absentee ballots that arrive after Election Day to be counted if they are postmarked by then. Ordinarily, ballots must be in the hands of clerks by Election Day to be counted in Wisconsin.
‘Uncharted territory’ in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania took weeks to count all absentee ballots during its June presidential primary.
Local election officials have pleaded for state lawmakers to grant them at least the ability to open envelopes and verify signatures in advance. Pennsylvania officials expect more than 3 million ballots to be cast during the election after 1.5 million people voted absentee during the primary.
But Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature have not reached an agreement. Wolf wants counties to be able to process ballots 15 days before Nov. 3 and Republicans have offered three days. But the Republican plan also would ban absentee ballot drop-off boxes throughout the state – something the Trump campaign sued Pennsylvania in June to try to achieve and Wolf strongly opposes.
“We are truly in uncharted territory in Pennsylvania,” said Forrest Lehman, director of elections in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. “Counties are very concerned about the ongoing uncertainty as we try to prepare for November. We are running short of time to pass a bill, but we’re not out of time yet, especially if conversations continue.”
The Pennsylvania bill is currently tied up in a state Senate committee, controlled by Republicans, despite having the support of former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, who co-chairs a new group called VoteSafe, which has advocated for vote-by-mail expansion during the pandemic.
“Let’s face it,” Ridge said. “It’s very unlikely given the unprecedented nature in use of absentee ballots that we’re going to know on election night who the victor is. But anything we can do to accelerate that process I think contributes significantly to preserving the integrity of the election.”
Ridge, a Trump critic who bucked his party last week and endorsed Biden for president, urged state lawmakers from both parties and the governor to work out a compromise.
“Inaction is not an option. And if you look at each other’s alternative, remember, perfect should never be an enemy of the good.”
But Republicans appear unwilling to budge from their requirement of eliminating drop-off boxes. State Rep. Garth Everett, a Republican from Lycoming County and chair of the State Government Committee, and other Republicans in the Pennsylvania General Assembly have raised concerns that “unmanned, unsecured drop boxes” could lead to fraud.
“If they’re not comfortable with mail-in voting, you know what you can do?” Everett said. “You can do it the old-fashioned way.”
Michigan officials hope to have result more by Friday after election
In Michigan, the state’s Democratic secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, called for at least seven days in advance of Election Day to begin processing absentee ballots. But efforts from Democratic state lawmakers to move the date to the weekend before the election went nowhere in the Republican-led legislature.
After legislative finagling and dragging their feet, Michigan legislators last week approved a bill that would give local clerks in cities with at least 25,000 people an extra 10 hours to process – but not count – absentee ballots. It affects 72 cities including the state’s largest city, Detroit, which is notoriously slow to tally its votes.
Michigan voters must place absentee ballots in a “secrecy envelope” and then place that into a larger envelope. The legislation allows clerks to start opening the outer envelopes and sorting ballots on from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 2. Although this cuts down on steps clerks would generally take on Election Day, it’s unclear how much time this will actually save in terms of obtaining final vote tallies.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, supports the legislation – which would also allow poll workers to rotate on multiple shifts to count absentee ballots – but as of Friday had not signed it into law.
“While the Bipartisan Policy Center recommends at least 7 days, any extra time would be a help to our clerks,” said Tracy Wimmer, a spokeswoman for Benson.
Michigan is on track to see more than 3 million people vote absentee during the general election, nearly twice the 1.6 million who did in the August primary. Wimmer said it took until Wednesday evening after the Tuesday election to finish counting all the absentee ballots in the primary.
“It makes sense to expect double the time,” she said in an email. “We’re hoping to have all ballots counted by Friday.”
Advocates say nonpartisan issue has become ‘partisan football’
Democratic voters have requested vastly more mail ballots than Republicans nationally, and polling shows Biden supporters are twice as likely to vote by mail than Trump supporters.
As a result, some Democrats have have warned of a “red mirage” on election night as in-person election results – expected to favor Trump and perhaps show him ahead in many states – are initially reported before a record number of absentee ballots, that could skew toward Biden, are counted.
Some states changed their laws to brace for the influx of more absentee ballots. In Iowa, the Legislative Council last week moved to allow counties to begin the process of opening the outer absentee ballot envelopes on the Saturday before Election Day, rather than the traditional day before. Georgia, another state where Trump and Biden are running close, in August moved to let county officials to start processing absentee ballots two weeks before the election.
Other states already allowed a processing window before the election. Florida begins processing mail-in ballots 22 days before the election; Arizona 14 days before; North Carolina five weeks before; and Ohio, Minnesota, Nevada and Virginia upon receipt. Even Texas, which is one of the handful of states in which no-excuse absentee voting won’t be available during the pandemic, allows the state’s biggest cities to begin processing absentee ballots 12 days before the election.
“We are running out of time, but they could still do it and it would really help the election go more smoothly,” Kristin Eberhard, director of democracy research for at the Sightline Institute, a nonprofit think-tank, said of changes in other states. “There’s no reason not to. There’s every reason to do it.”
She said she believes Trump’s rhetoric about mail-voting has fueled GOP resistance to legislation that should be nonpartisan.
“Unfortunately it’s become such a partisan football. I think Republican lawmakers are kind of getting accused from the head of their party that they shouldn’t be making reforms or making anything easier around absentee voting,” Eberhard said.
McReynolds, who previously oversaw elections in Denver, which conducts its elections entirely by mail, said extended processing periods are needed not only to produce results timely. It also lets voters know the status of their ballots earlier and helps election officials, who require more manpower and equipment if ballots build up.
“This would be like telling the IRS and telling the public, ‘you have to have your taxes in by April 15. The IRS can’t touch it until the day of the 15, and it has to be done by the next day.’ That’s basically what we’re saying to our election officials in these states.”
“They need to do it as soon as possible,” McReynolds said, “but even if they did it in two weeks it’s still very, very positive and impactful for the election.”
Des Moines Register staff writer Ian Richardson contributed to this report. Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.