Last week I found myself in the unsettling position of agreeing with Sen. Bernie Sanders. His call for states to begin processing and counting mail ballots as they arrive could help save our country from an electoral Doomsday scenario.
As a lifelong conservative, I usually I associate Sanders with the fabled crotchety old uncle who arrives for Thanksgiving. He believes disdain and anger are substitutes for well-reasoned argument. You can fill a BINGO card full of the nutty stuff he will say in any given tangent.
Yet Sanders’ point about mail ballots seems to be the star in the middle we should all have on our cards.
Due to a combination of COVID concerns and tremendous enthusiasm surrounding the presidential ballot, Americans will turn in tens of millions of mail ballots over the next six weeks. In several states – including battlegrounds North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Florida – ballots have already been sent and are being returned.
President Donald Trump has railed against the mail ballot process, one that has been in place for more than 150 years and to which he has availed himself on multiple occasions, for being rampant with fraud. He has called for the election to be delayed and refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power after the election.
As I have written before, his arguments are utter nonsense. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to that conclusion a few days ago. Nonetheless, they are an integral part of his plan to “destroy democracy.”
The danger our country does face, though, is a prolonged wait for election results if states do not begin processing and counting mail ballots upon receipt. That failure would have massive ramifications for both this election and arguments over its integrity.
Processing mail ballots creates a bottleneck in the system. They are returned to centralized locations where verification procedures must take place, ballots separated and then finally counted. As with any system, there is a limit on throughput.
For example, most states require voters to sign their mail ballot envelope. That signature is cross-checked against the voter file database to verify the ballot inside. This process takes time, especially when the review requires an actual human being to make the comparison. Multiplied times millions, it is a daunting task.
The ballots are no less valid, they just require more time to process.
That is why state like Colorado, where all mail ballots have been the norm for multiple election cycles, begin processing ballots upon receipt. Furthermore, Colorado begins counting those ballots on the same day it opens early voting centers. This year election officials will begin counting mail ballots in Colorado on Oct. 19, more than two weeks before Election Day.
And the system works.
In 2014, I ran for a state Senate seat in Colorado. Polls close at 7 p.m. and I knew I had lost before 7:30 p.m. when the mail ballot returns were uploaded. Embarrassing and demoralizing for me, yes, but an affirmation of the electoral process.
States that do not follow this lead risk wait times for returns that will run into hours, days or even weeks. In a country where instant gratification is super-charged by social media, such long waits will undoubtably turn into misguided accusations of fraud.
And that is when the election will spill into chaos.
Recognizing that problem, election officials in Pennsylvania have asked for permission to move their processing and counting date up from Election Day. Unfortunately, the Republican legislature seems hell-bent on denying that request. They are actively working against a smooth election.
In contrast, Michigan is moving forward with a bipartisan bill to allow processing the day before the election. That still may not be enough lead time, but at least it is movement in the right direction.
Now is the time for states across the country to take a proactive stance to protect the integrity of our elections. If they wait until Election Day, it may be too little too late.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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