Covid-19 pandemic is expected to prompt an unprecedented number of voters to cast ballots by post.
Standing in a queue at a polling station on Election Day is the most common way American voters cast ballots, but in recent years, voting by mail has risen in popularity.
Whereas it was previously not uncommon for states to restrict voting by post to special circumstances such as being a soldier who was serving abroad now the practice is widely permitted in a majority of states, whether one is an “absentee voter” or for any other reason.
Some 80 million mail-in ballots are predicted to be cast – double the number in 2016 and more than any other election year.
The concern now, however, is that ballot deliveries could be delayed, and raise questions over whether they will count. States have wide latitude over determining election rules, including setting deadlines for a postal vote to qualify.
Pennsylvania will only include those received by 20:00 local time on election day, while California accepts votes as long as they are postmarked by the date, even if they arrive weeks later.
Some localities was forced to issue emergency orders to extend deadline during the 2020 primary election due to delays in the US Postal Service’s deliveries, which could happen again in November.
The 2020 primary elections also gave voters a preview of problems that could mar in-person voting on Election Day. States from New York to Alaska struggled with running this traditional and still most common method of casting ballots.
This year, perennial issues like faulty voting machines were compounded by worker shortages and longer than usual queues due to social distancing concerns.
These led to changes that protracted the process – Kentucky sharply cut the number of polling stations and had to order polls to stay open longer, amid accusations that the pandemic was being used as a way to suppress minority votes.
Alaska forced all voters in some areas to use postal ballots because no polling station could be opened and Georgia was faced with lawsuits over malfunction polling machines.
Two big factors threaten to prolong ballot counting, all but guaranteeing a longer-than-usual process for declaring a winner: the sharp increase in volume of postal ballots, and the likelihood of unusual – and possibly purposefully delaying – scrutiny.
Though there are differences, the typical process for counting begins after poll stations close. In-person votes are secure and transmitted to the county government centre, where these ballots are counted first. Once completed, officials begin counting ballots received by post.
Postal ballot counting takes longer because each vote must have a signature that is matched with a separate autograph on a registration card. With double in the number of postal ballots expected, that process alone will add time to the count.
Moreover, the veracity of the ballot can be subject to challenges by volunteer “poll watchers” who look over the shoulders of officials verifying the legitimacy of a ballot. Ballots that are challenged by a poll watcher are put aside to be checked again before being counted or rejected.