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3 Key States Have To Wait Until Election Day To Count Mail-In Ballots

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we've been reporting, a record number of Americans will vote by mail this election season because of the pandemic, and local election officials are going to be under huge pressure to count those ballots quickly. It's going to be especially hard in three key key swing states. NPR's Miles Parks explained.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Even before the pandemic, Tina Barton knew that counting ballots this year was going to be a problem. Barton is the county clerk of Rochester Hills, Mich. She started sounding the alarm last year that more people were voting by mail because of a new law that made it easier, but she and her staff weren't getting any extra time to deal with that.

TINA BARTON: Knowing that people were taking advantage of this new opportunity, we started projecting, where would this place us in 2020? And again, at this point, we still have no idea. There's a pandemic about ready to hit us.

PARKS: This is a central challenge in three of the swing states - Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Unlike most of the country, clerks in these states have had to wait until Election Day to start most of the work it takes to count mail ballots, which take more time to process than in-person votes. There's signature verification, opening the envelope, separating from the secrecy sleeve and sorting it. All of that might sound simple, but Barton has sent out 27,000 ballots this year.

BARTON: What we would do then is start at 7 a.m. on Election Day. And, basically, you had to work until the job was done, whether that was 11 o'clock at night or 4 o'clock the next morning.

PARKS: Many election workers are in their 70s. Barton said she would sometimes feel uncomfortable about sending them to drive home after finishing up.

BARTON: They're sequestered in a room. They have to go to the restroom in groups of two. They can't have any connection to the outside world.

PARKS: Doing the same task for 20 straight hours.

BARTON: To think that the quality of the work may not be diminished I think is irresponsible.

PARKS: Her calls were answered. The Michigan legislature just passed a bill that lets her at least open the envelopes and sought the ballots a day earlier.

BARTON: I wish we could do more, but I'll be honest with you - it took us a year to get to this point. So I'm going to take this as a victory and look at the fact that that is one process that I can do 30,000 times on Monday that I don't have to do on Tuesday.

PARKS: But in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the Republican-controlled legislatures there have not changed their election laws, despite expecting a huge surge in mail ballots. And if margins are close in either state, that could mean it takes longer to know who wins the presidency, potentially opening the door for misinformation. President Trump, for instance, has falsely tried to portray that possibility as a national catastrophe or a sign of fraud. Local officials don't see it that way.

RACHEL RODRIGUEZ: If we don't have results at 9 or 10 p.m. on election night, it doesn't mean that there's anything nefarious going on. It doesn't mean that there's any sort of conspiracy.

PARKS: That's Rachel Rodriguez. She's an election official in Dane County, Wisconsin.

RODRIGUEZ: Doesn't even mean that there's a problem. It just means that clerks are still trying to count ballots. And they you know, are trying to make sure that everybody's votes are counted.

PARKS: Some counties have purchased new equipment to process ballots faster, but that still won't solve all the backlogs created by the processing restrictions. Kathleen Hale, an election administration expert at Auburn University, said it makes sense these sorts of issues are popping up. States have rapidly expanded voting options to respond to the pandemic, but their legislatures haven't always kept up.

KATHLEEN HALE: Every state's laws about all of the different pieces of the process - they all hang together. And so changing one piece usually means that changes need to be made in other pieces to have the system work the way it was intended.

PARKS: The mayor of Detroit even announced last month that that city would be shutting down much of city government around Election Day, so city workers can help with the processing. I asked Tina Barton, the election official in Michigan, whether she was feeling more pressure to be faster this year because of all this talk about a potential waiting game for results.

Do you feel like that kind of talk puts a little bit more pressure on you to get this process done quickly?

BARTON: My pressure is to get this done right. And we're not going to be able to achieve the perfection that we're looking for if we are rushing into tasks or skipping processes just to appease people's, you know, insatiable desire to have instantaneous results.

PARKS: She says she's made peace with the fact that getting it right may just take a little longer this year.

Miles Parks, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.