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Another Way Chaos Could Erupt on Election Day: Delayed Absentee Ballot Processing

Although some GOP election officials have moved to allow mail-in ballots to be counted early, outdated rules in other key Republican-led states could feed President Trump’s Election Day fearmongering.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

In mid-September, in federal court in New Jersey, the Trump campaign made unfounded claims about absentee voting leading to fraud. It was a predictable argument, the same one the campaign’s legal team has been using for months, but in New Jersey they asked the court for something more: prevent the state from counting mail-in ballots until Nov. 3. 

Because Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote using absentee ballots, delaying their counting is likely to artificially inflate the preliminary returns for President Trump while also drawing out the process well after Election Day. That would support his repeated and unsubstantiated claims that the election is rigged against him. At the same time, if a voter’s ballot is rejected, as more than a half million were during the primaries, they also have less time to fix the mistake, which is likely to further disenfranchise voters who lean left.

While states like Iowa, Michigan, Kentucky, Maine, and South Carolina are attempting to allow early processing of ballots, others states have refused to expand pre-processing—most notably, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Amber McReynolds, director of elections in Denver from 2011 to 2018, said delaying the counting of absentee ballots is a mistake. Counting ballots before Election Day “is the most nonpartisan technical improvement that can be made,” she said.

Currently, 11 states prohibit the pre-processing of ballots, which is for three main reasons, said Tammy Patrick, senior adviser to the Elections program at the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation working to improve election administration. The first is that some voters may change their minds between mailing the absentee and Election Day, which doesn’t sway Patrick. “You’re not processing potentially millions of ballots because one or two or a handful of voters changed their mind?” she said. 

Similarly rare is the second concern: that a voter dies in between casting the ballot and when it’s counted. “It’s odd that we have entire policies about when we can administer our elections around the minuscule number of people who pass away after voting their ballot,” Patrick said. 

The final concern is that the results will be leaked ahead of time. For this reason, no state allows officials to know the final count of absentees before polls close on Election Day. Before then, though, there’s a wide variety of what’s permissible. 

In South Carolina, officials can start the process the morning of the election, including the critical step of ensuring that ballots are scannable. “Some of the ballots get ripped or stained or can’t be read, so they have to be duplicated onto a fresh ballot,” said Josh Dickard, the deputy director of the Charleston County Board of Elections. “That’s one of the longest, most tedious parts because it’s a manual process.” 

In 2016, Dickard and his team started tabulating at 9 a.m. By 11:30 p.m, they’d gone through all the legible ballots (about 16,000), but the roughly 400 that had to be duplicated took until 2 a.m. This year, he has two additional high-speed scanners and plans to start the duplication process earlier. He’ll also have an additional two hours to process, but he’s already received triple the number of absentee applications. “We expect we’ll go well into Wednesday,” he says. “We hope we won’t go into Thursday.”

In Michigan, the number of absentees for this presidential primary was almost double that of 2016. Tina Barton, the clerk for the city of Rochester Hills, was well prepared, partly because of a gamble she took in 2017. That year, the state bought new election equipment and she spent some of the money available for in-person ballot scanners on high-speed tabulators for absentees. “People kind of chuckled at me,” she said. “They thought it was aggressive.” 

But Barton could see the signs. In 2016, the Republican secretary of state and a Republican state representative tried to clear the way for residents to vote by mail without needing an excuse. They failed, but with those people pushing for reform, Barton thought, “it’s going to happen eventually.” In 2018, it passed.

To help election officials keep up, Michigan’s GOP-controlled legislature recently considered allowing them to pre-process absentees. When Barton testified before the Senate’s Elections Committee, she asked for seven days—the recommendation from the Bipartisan Policy Center. Instead, the legislature approved one extra day. The bill is now headed to the governor, who’s expected to sign, but either way, it will sunset after this election. 

At the end of September, Barton and four other Republican clerks published an opinion article calling for more time, but Barton is still grateful for the extra day. “If I’m looking at 30,000 absentee ballots coming back for us to process on Tuesday,” Barton says, “those are 30,000 tasks that I can do on Monday.”

And, what that bill lacks in extra time, it makes up for in another crucial area: notifying voters that their signatures don’t match what’s on file. While other states have extended the deadline to “cure” a rejected ballot, Michigan’s law stipulates that clerks must tell voters within 48 hours of when their ballots are received.

This difference—between a law allowing an action and explicitly requiring it—is important. For example, Florida’s start date to process absentees is 22 days beforehand, among the most generous timelines in the country. Still, in 2018, Broward County, one of the state’s most historically dysfunctional election jurisdictions, had a backlog of at least 49,861 absentees on Election Day, further disrupting an already chaotic process.

The tide is tilting toward pre-processing. In late August, Maine’s governor signed an executive order allowing counties to petition for three additional days. Recently, Iowa’s Republican secretary of state allowed county auditors to start the weekend before the election, a policy unanimously approved by the legislative council. As part of its bipartisan election compromise, Kentucky’s counties can already start processing, as can those in North Carolina

However, in Pennsylvania, pre-processing has become a bargaining chip. Under GOP-sponsored legislation, counties would get an additional three days, but drop boxes would be prohibited and the deadline to request an absentee would be shortened. The governor has vowed to veto the bill. 

In Wisconsin, where each absentee vote requires an election official to click between 14 and 18 times to verify in their computer system, clerks have been pushing for years to start processing before 7 a.m. on Election Day. So far, the legislature has no plans to consider such a proposal. 

In such a crucial state, with perhaps as many as 1.8 million absentees for the general election, the aftermath could be just what the Trump campaign has been prophesying. 

“If your narrative is, ‘If we don’t have an answer by 10 o’clock on November 3, the results are illegitimate,’ then you’re going to want to do everything you can to sow seeds of chaos and doubt,” Patrick said. “And having outstanding processing of millions of ballots, particularly in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania just feeds into your narrative.”