Politico

Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin decided the 2016 election. We’ll have to wait on them in 2020.


The most important states in the 2016 election are among the least likely states to count their votes and declare a winner on election night this year.

Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are expecting huge surges in ballots cast by mail in 2020, like most states preparing to vote during the coronavirus pandemic. But all three Midwestern battlegrounds, which President Donald Trump flipped in 2016 to win the White House after years of Democratic presidential victories there, are among the states where local election officials are not allowed to start processing mail ballots until Election Day, according to a POLITICO review of election rules in 13 key states.

Mail ballot processing involves everything from opening envelopes to checking voter signatures to flattening ballots that have been crumpled or creased in transit. The procedures can be time consuming, and that will create a backlog of millions of votes set to draw out the counting process for days after the polls close.

That means that the country may be waiting, along with voters in the three Midwestern states, to see whether Trump or Joe Biden carried their electoral votes — and potentially the presidency.

“People kind of underestimate the enormity of that task,” said Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, as he ticked through the long processing checklist that each ballot must go through before it can be counted. LaRose’s state, unlike many of its neighbors, lets election authorities start processing ballots earlier. “God forbid we had to do all of that on election night.”

A handful of states including Ohio and Florida, another key battleground, allow election officials to process or even count mail ballots early, meaning they typically report results quickly even when there is heavy mail voting.

But the Midwestern trio that tipped the 2016 election will have to wait, with the reported results potentially shifting as ballots are tallied because Trump voters favor in-person voting and Biden voters favor mail voting this year, according to public and private polling and state absentee ballot request data.

POLITICO examined the voting process in 13 battleground states, surveying who is allowed to request a mail ballot, when election officials can start processing ballots and more. In every state but Florida, the office of the state’s chief election official answered a series of questions on how the state conducts its elections. We also collected data on the share of mail ballots returned in 2018, a rough baseline for the state’s experience with processing large amounts of election mail, from the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting rights organization.

The results explain both how votes are cast and, critically, when they are counted in the most important states in the 2020 election.

“We should be prepared for this to be closer to an election week as opposed to an Election Day,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said recently on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “The bottom line is we are not going to have the full results and a counting of all of our ballots on election night. We already know that.”

Here are the rules and procedures for voting and vote-counting in 13 battleground states.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

When are mail-in ballots due?

When does in-person voting begin?

How are votes processed?

Arizona is no stranger to protracted vote counts and watching the lead in close races change hands. In the 2018 Senate race, Republican Martha McSally led early before Democrat Kyrsten Sinema pulled ahead as all ballots were counted.

Sinema’s win prompted conspiracy theories from Trump at the time, and GOP Rep. Paul Gosar recently reignited those same baseless charges that the final count was not accurate.

“It’s normal that results are not final on election night,” said Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat. “I can testify to that from firsthand experience.” (Hobbs trailed in her 2018 race in early counts, before ultimately winning.)

Hobbs is confident her state is prepared for November, citing the high number of voters in Arizona who already routinely vote via the mail. “Pennsylvania, Michigan, they’re doing large-scale vote-by-mail in ways that they haven’t done before,” she said. “We’ve had time in Arizona to build up that infrastructure and processes.”

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

When are mail-in ballots due?

When does in-person voting begin?

How are votes processed?

Because of that head start, Florida is one state that could provide early signs about the 2020 election on election night. Florida starts processing ballots exceptionally early, and a decisive result in the state could foreshadow how the vote has shifted elsewhere since the last election, when Trump narrowly carried Florida.

Florida also has a long history with vote-by-mail, allowing any voter to request a ballot since 2002, meaning both voters and election administrators are familiar with the process.

“I think Florida is in a good position to be the shining star on election night,” said Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer, the current president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections association. “We’ve got the processes in place to do this.”

Of course, Florida regularly has close elections that take time to settle, too. There was the infamous 2000 presidential recount as well as the state’s 2018 gubernatorial and Senate elections, where now-GOP Sen. Rick Scott and DeSantis saw their already tight margins from Election Day shrink as outstanding votes were counted.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

When are mail-in ballots due?

When does in-person voting begin?

How are votes processed?

Georgia’s much-maligned June primary, rife with delays, long lines and other problems, showed how difficult it can be to parse incomplete vote counts and high levels of mail voting in states without significant prior experience.

A handful of competitive races were uncalled for days, and The Associated Press ultimately had to retract two race calls in the state as more votes were counted. Georgia’s requirement that statewide candidates (though not the presidential candidates) win a majority of the vote or face a runoff will add another degree of difficulty for election projectors in November.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

When are mail-in ballots due?

When does in-person voting begin?

How are votes processed?

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller is urging Pate to make an administrative rule change allowing processing to begin earlier, writing in a petition that “with current rules, most counties in Iowa will not be able to finish tabulating absentee ballots by 10 p.m.” on election night.

“Why set ourselves up for failure by only allowing the Monday before to start counting ballots when we could … start counting maybe as early as Friday, because we need that,” Miller said.

Kevin Hall, a spokesperson for Pate, wrote in an email to POLITICO that “we’re working on expanding the time for them to prepare absentee ballots for counting,” contending that any changes would first need to be approved by the Iowa Legislative Council.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

When are mail-in ballots due?

When does in-person voting begin?

How are votes processed?

Benson has long been warning the public not to expect immediate results out of Michigan, in part due to the state’s processing rules.

“We are preparing folks now for the reality that we may not know any results, or even want to announce any results in Michigan, until maybe even Thursday or Friday after the election,” Benson told POLITICO in May. “We’re going to prioritize security and accuracy over all else, and that may mean we take a little bit more time.”

Benson and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a fellow Democrat, have pushed the state Legislature to allow election administrators to process ballots before Election Day, as well as calling for ballots that are postmarked by Election Day to count, as long as they’re received within the next 48 hours. The state Legislature has not acted on the request, but Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican, recently said conversations around changes are not dead.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

When are mail-in ballots due?

When does in-person voting begin?

How are votes processed?

Minnesota will likely count votes faster than some of its neighbors, giving election administrators in the state a long windup time to handle the expected surge of mail votes.

“That head start is typically seven days, but this year at our urging, [lawmakers] doubled it,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat. “So we can start processing and doing everything with absentee ballots 14 days before the election.”

Simon was quick to note that, even with the extended time frame, there is no public tally of the vote count before the polls close on Election Day, stressing the security of the system. The state, which typically requires ballots to be returned by close of polls, also has a postmark deadline instead this year, giving ballots with an Election Day postmark a week to be returned.

“We won’t, by definition, have 100 percent of the results until a week later,” Simon said. “But I do think that in the majority of contests, we will know the outcomes far sooner than that.” Simon’s office will also publish the number of outstanding mail ballots to better give voters (and the media) an idea of what’s left to potentially be counted.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

When are mail-in ballots due?

When does in-person voting begin?

How are votes processed?

Nevada is the only swing state that plans on sending all active voters in the state an absentee ballot, after the state Legislature passed AB4 earlier in the summer.

The law expands mail-in voting during times of emergency and allows third parties to collect and return unopened ballots — which is championed by Democrats as “community collection” and derided by Republicans as “ballot harvesting.”

The new law has drawn condemnation from Trump, as well as a lawsuit, which is still in progress in federal court. Earlier in September, state and national Democrats sought to have Trump’s suit tossed out.

And in Nevada, conclusive results are not expected on Nov. 3. “It is unlikely that we will have results on election night,” said Jennifer Russell, a spokesperson for Cegavske.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

When are mail-in ballots due?

When does in-person voting begin?

How are votes processed?

New Hampshire is one of the handful of states that effectively expanded absentee voting in the state to all voters, after having fairly restrictive absentee ballot laws in years past.

The state, which usually requires a valid excuse to vote absentee, is giving all voters the option to request a ballot ahead of November. Any voter can request one, citing “I am unable to vote in person due to concern for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).”

Officials in the state are hopeful that most of the tally would be completed on election night.

“Most of our clerks will work until 2 or 3 in the morning. They stay there until they’re done,” said Marge Morgan, the clerk in Greenland, N.H. and president of the New Hampshire City & Town Clerks’ Association. “It’s going to be kind of a wait and see, to be honest with you … most of the towns probably should have their votes in that night or in the wee hours of the morning.”

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

When are mail-in ballots due?

When does in-person voting begin?

How are votes processed?

Election officials both in North Carolina and across the country caution that, like in years past, no results are official until the results are certified. In North Carolina, that doesn’t happen until 10 days later.

“One of the things that we are trying to caution, the media and the public and candidates even, is that while we try to process and tabulate and put forward all the results that we possibly can on election night, it’s not official until we [certify results],” state election director Karen Brinson Bell said in a mid-May interview.

“We do still have military and overseas ballots that we can accept,” she continued. If other ballots are postmarked on Election Day, they are “counted during our canvass period. … So a truly close race, we shouldn’t be calling any of those until we actually certify.”

But some results may be more definitive. Bell has projected that as much as 80 percent of voters in the state will vote before Election Day, either via mail or in-person early voting, so a majority of results could be compiled on election night.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

When are mail-in ballots due?

When does in-person voting begin?

How are votes processed?

Unlike much of the rest of the Midwest, Ohio election officials can start processing mail-in ballots well before election. But even that does not guarantee that winners will be known on election night. “The question is, will it be conclusive or not?” LaRose, the secretary of state, said.

LaRose’s office will be publicizing a key number on election night — the number of outstanding absentee ballots — to help election observers determine whether results are conclusive or not.

“You’ll be able to see on our website on election night that candidate A has X number of votes, and candidate B has X number of votes … and that there are still X number of outstanding absentee ballots,” LaRose said. “So if any candidate has a 4 or 5 percent lead on election night, and they’re winning by a million votes and there’s only a couple hundred thousand outstanding absentee ballots, then the contest is over, right? I think numerically, that’s pretty straightforward.”

“But if it’s a tighter race … well, then yeah, you just can’t say that it’s a conclusive result yet at that point,” LaRose continued.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

When are mail-in ballots due?

When does in-person voting begin?

How are votes processed?

Pennsylvania has a chance of lengthening the period for ballot processing and alleviating the strain on election workers on election night, but time is running short.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is pushing for changes that would allow processing to begin weeks before the election. The GOP-controlled state Legislature is moving a bill that allows for early processing to begin on the Saturday before the election, but Wolf has promised to veto the bill, which includes other election changes. It isn’t clear whether there will be a compromise.

A group of Pennsylvanians, especially Democrats in the state, is worried how Trump would react to a slow count, especially after the state’s June primary took weeks to wrap up, with Philadelphia in particular struggling to deal with all of its mail ballots.

“I continue to be discouraged by the rhetoric from the president, who equates the delay which we can all anticipate, because of predictable, unprecedented use of absentee balloting,” to fraud, said former Republican GOP Gov. Tom Ridge. A co-chair of the bipartisan group VoteSafe, Ridge has been pushing the state Legislature to adjust processing deadlines.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

When are mail-in ballots due?

When does in-person voting begin?

How are votes processed?

Texas is the only one of the 13 battlegrounds surveyed by POLITICO that has not effectively made mail voting available to all voters in the state. While there has been a push to get qualified voters to request ballots, the growth in mail voting is not expected to be as explosive as it is in other states.

In Texas, voters are eligible to vote by mail absentee if they fulfill one of a handful of potential excuses: Being at least 65, disabled, out of the county or “confined in jail, but otherwise eligible.”

A panel of federal judges recently ruled that Texas can keep its eligibility requirements for requesting absentee ballots, rejecting a bid from Democrats to expand absentee voting to all registered voters during the coronavirus pandemic.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

When are mail-in ballots due?

When does in-person voting begin?

How are votes processed?

“I can’t imagine anyone will know on election night what’s going to happen in Wisconsin,” said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin. Heck added that he doesn’t expect the state Legislature coming back into session to make changes.

As in several other states, there is litigation ongoing to try to make the deadline for turning in mail ballots based on the postmark date, not the date they are received.

Ballots postmarked by the date of Wisconsin’s April election were ultimately counted after back-and-forth legal wrangling in the early weeks of the pandemic. That resulted in an additional 79,000 votes becoming valid, which wouldn’t have counted under normal rules. It also held up the release of any results until nearly a week after the election.

Wisconsin is back to its regular rules for November, but Democrats are again challenging the due-date law.

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