Record surge in mail-in votes, poll officials warn of delayed results

Written by Karishma Mehrotra
| San Francisco |

October 16, 2020 4:32:56 am

President Donald Trump has gone great lengths to discredit mail-in voting, claiming since July that it would increase voter fraud.

Every four years, the US has an “Election Day” on the first Tuesday after November 1, with the result usually called by the end of the day. But this year, election officials are speaking of an “Election Week”, cautioning Americans not to expect an immediate result. The reason for that is the unprecedented surge in what was once an uneventful process — mail-in voting. With Covid and social distancing the new normal, a record number of American voters have opted to mail in their voting preferences.

Of the 78 million mail-in votes requested this year, 9.3 million had been submitted by the beginning of this week, according to the University of Florida’s US Elections Project. By this point in 2016, with three weeks still to go for the election, only about 1.4 million people had voted. This year, some states — Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia — have already received more mail-in ballots than their total mail-in ballots in 2016.

“It’s great that voters have historic access to mail-in ballots and are voting in safe and secure ways.I look at it as an Election Season now, and not a day. We know that more the mail-in ballots in states, the higher the share of the electorate that turns out to vote. So we are certainly going to see an unprecedented turnout this election,” said Amber McReynolds, former Director of Elections in Colorado, where she led one of the early efforts to instill universal mail-in balloting that has now inspired several other states to follow suit.
The process to count the ballots might take more time than usual, she said, even as states ramp up machines and staff to count the vote.
Election procedures and rules vary across states; there is no nationwide election body like India’s Election Commission.

For instance, key battleground states — Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — aren’t allowed to start their counting processes until Election Day. These states also have a significant number of Indian Americans who could be the deciding factor.

Over the past month, meta-polls (tracking an aggregate of state-level polls) have been showing Democratic candidate Joe Biden as the clear winner. But with memories from 2016 – when pollsters had misread the elections – still fresh, media and campaign narratives have relied less on the polls this time around.

President Donald Trump has gone great lengths to discredit mail-in voting, claiming since July that it would increase voter fraud. In the final moments of the first presidential debate, Trump said, “As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster… This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen. On November 3, you’re watching and you’re going to see who won the election… But we might not know for months because these ballots are going to be all over… It’s a rigged election.”

A Stanford working paper has, however, showed that expanded mail-in voting is unlikely to favour any one party.

Half of the mail-in ballot requests are from registered Democratic voters, while only 30 per cent are from Republicans.

“We are emphatically encouraging South Asian voters to turn in mail-in ballots as soon as possible, and to avail themselves of early voting opportunities. President Trump and his allies have made numerous attempts to suppress voting…,” said Neha Dawan, director of South Asians for Biden, an outreach group.

Election officials are preparing to see more Republicans come to vote in-person. Some experts have expressed concern that this would mean their votes would be counted first, skewing the early results. However, others like McReynolds have tempered these concerns to say that majority of states count mail-in ballots first, not last, in their tally.

Nonetheless, the long drawn counting process this year has Democrats worried that Trump will have more of an opportunity to convince his base to doubt the results.

The debate reminds the country of the 2000 election, when major news channels reported different winners and had to eventually redact their announcements. The case went all the way up to the US Supreme Court, a possibility that’s relevant now as Trump’s pick for a new Supreme Court Justice is currently under review by Congress.

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