Here’s a prediction which I sincerely hope does not come true. We won’t go to bed on election night knowing who will serve as president for the next four years as we did in 2016. That year, by 11 p.m. on the west coast, we knew that Donald Trump had enough electoral votes to win an upset victory. This year, because of heavy voting by mail, we’ll be lucky to know who won by the time electors are required to vote for president on Dec. 14 or perhaps even by Inauguration Day which is set by the Constitution as Jan. 20. If not by then, I fear that chaos follows and perhaps even sooner.
Recall the 2000 election which came down to recounts in Florida and arguments over the meaning of hanging chads and stray marks on ballots until the Supreme Court mercifully ordered an end to recounts and Al Gore, who won the popular vote, graciously conceded to avoid further turmoil. This year, neither party may be willing to concede a close election, given the rancor and bitterness that now define politics in America. Hillary Clinton, in fact, has irresponsibly urged Joe Biden never to concede. Polls indicate that far more Democrats intend to vote by mail than Republicans so as long as there still are mailed ballots left to count, they will almost certainly add to Mr. Biden’s totals.
President Trump has ominously warned of widespread voter fraud because of heavy mail-in voting, a warning he makes without evidence, as the mainstream media is always quick to add. But whether or not Mr. Trump can actually cite such evidence, large amounts of mailed ballots do increase the chances of mishandling because of the increased handling involved, the process of collecting or harvesting votes and delays in counting. One may fairly argue over how widespread the mishandling may be but, be that as it may, there are many things that can go wrong other than fraud, even assuming that the U.S. Postal Service is up to the challenge of dealing with large volumes of mailed ballots in a short period of time. Even then, mailed ballots have a higher rejection rate than ballots cast in person and items can and do get lost or mishandled in the mail. A recent USPS audit revealed that, on average, 8% of mail is delivered late.
But the principal problem is the wide variety of laws dealing with elections among the states. Just as the result of presidential elections is, under our federal system, determined in the electoral college, states have wide latitude in determining the rules regarding who can vote by mail, how and when they may obtain ballots, when they are due, whether or not they must be postmarked and witnessed and when they can be counted. Some states, including eight of the so-called battleground states (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), require that mailed ballots must be received by election day. But in Pennsylvania, voters can request a ballot as late as Oct. 27, only a week before they are due. The Postal Service has already warned that such a timeframe is unrealistic. A week after Pennsylvania’s June 2 primary, roughly half of its counties were still counting ballots and nine days after the primary, Philadelphia alone still had over 42,000 votes to be counted, almost the margin of Trump’s 2016 victory in the state.
Five states allow ballots to be received after election day. In Ohio, they can be received as late as Nov. 13 if postmarked by Nov. 2. Other battleground states that allow ballots to be received after election day are North Carolina (Nov. 6), Iowa (Nov. 9) and Minnesota and Nevada (both Nov. 10). Then there is the time consuming and difficult task of verifying the ballots by matching signatures on the mailed ballots with the voter rolls. Eight battleground states allow verification to begin as early as 22 days before election day but five don’t allow it to begin until election day itself.
Concerns about actual widespread voter fraud may indeed be overblown as Democrat leaders maintain but concerns about lengthy delays in processing mailed ballots and determining who will occupy the Oval Office on Inauguration Day in the event of a contested outcome are real and serious. Voting by mail during a pandemic may make perfect sense from a public health standpoint but given the wide variety of rules governing voting that exist among the states, it may cause significant delays in determining the outcome which will almost certainly lead to challenges. Both parties are reportedly preparing for legal challenges. In this climate of public unrest and suspicion, protests and disorder can quickly follow. This is the last thing our deeply divided nation needs. Perhaps we needn’t worry so much about the Russians meddling in our elections. We can screw things up all by ourselves.
The electoral college system is mandated by the Constitution but the various state procedures for dealing with mailed ballots could benefit by some degree of uniformity. Unfortunately, it may be too late to avoid serious problems this election season.
Dr. Kelly is a freelance writer and retired Navy Captain who commanded three San Diego-based ships and a personnel research and development center and taught ship handling, seamanship and navigation at Naval Base San Diego. He earned his doctorate in education at USD, taught graduate students and was a senior vice-president and Director of Training and Development at Great American Bank. He has written over 1500 newspaper and journal articles and has been a regular contributor to the Eagle & Journal since 2001.