By Brian Browne
Election Night 2020 and the long days that followed provided a crash course in American geography, civics, and was a stark reminder of the importance of our right to vote and that every vote must be rightly counted. Many casual political observers were surprised to learn that there is no uniform guide to voting, holding elections, or counting ballots found in the U.S. Constitution. What should be no surprise is the value that our founders put on the importance of voting. No right is recognized more frequently in the Constitution than our right to vote. Whether on paper or in person that value was on clear display this Election Day as Americans from both sides of the body politic voted at the highest rate in more than a century.
The Elections Clause — Article I, Section 4 — gives state legislatures the task of determining how congressional elections should be held. It is state legislatures that determine how, when, and where voters may register to vote and may cast their ballots.
States have wide latitude to administer federal elections and the specific parameters, including the rules around voting by mail, which vary by state.
Absentee voting is not a new political phenomenon. The first widespread instance of absentee voting in the United States came during another crisis when soldiers during the Civil War voted that way and the practice was subsequently expanded to civilians. All 50 states allow voters who cannot vote in-person on Election Day to request an absentee ballot — while 16 of these states require an excuse and 34 states and Washington, D.C. do not. Nine states and D.C. conduct elections by mail by proactively sending a ballot to all eligible voters. Some states have been holding all-mail elections without incident for years. Best practices must be utilized to promote, protect, and preserve the integrity of our elections.
The unprecedented and historic voter turnout in this year’s elections and the importance of mail-in voting should not have been a surprise; the signs were there the entire time. The early 2020 presidential primary was a foreshadowing of how the COVID-19 pandemic would alter how we cast and count votes. Remember the Iowa Caucus? The very first contest in the 2020 Presidential Election had a three-day delay in even reporting the votes and after a recount, the results were not certified until three weeks later.
Voter enthusiasm and voter intent for absentee voting was no secret either. Before the pandemic, new voter registration was pacing well ahead of 2016 numbers. Meanwhile, a Gallup Poll conducted in April indicated that sixty-four percent of Americans said they support voting by mail in this year’s election. The same poll also cited stark differences in the approach to mail-in voting by party affiliation with 83 percent of Democrats surveyed saying they support the idea, 68 percent of independents, and only 40 percent of Republicans. Also, 59 percent of Republican respondents in the poll said they oppose vote-by-mail efforts, compared to only 29 percent of independents and 15 percent of Democrats. On the campaign trail, President Trump at his own peril regularly disparaged the practice of mail-in voting despite having voted that way in the past. Moving forward, strategic and successful candidates for public office will harness the power and potential of early and mail-in voting during a pandemic or not.
The COVID-19 crisis disrupted another Election Night routine and that is when major networks declare a projected winner. Given the abundance of close races, TV networks tried to manage expectations and even drew criticism and frustration when they took a careful and cautious approach. Fox News drew the ire of the Trump Campaign when they called Arizona for Joe Biden with 73 percent of the vote counted in the traditionally Republican-voting state. Historically, networks get their Election Night information from exit polls and early returns, but that practice needs to shift to consider the growing movement toward early and mail-in voting and the delay in opening let alone counting these ballots.
With hours of coverage to produce and an over-reliance on maps, charts, and data many networks tend to over-emphasize Election Day results by sharing the election returns based on the percentage of precincts reporting their Election Day counts and under-reporting the paper ballots or the total estimated voter turnout.
Before the next federal election, reasonable uniform processes for evaluating the validity of mail-in ballots should be implemented to prevent any disenfranchisement of voters because of an increase of mail-in ballots. The collecting and timely counting of votes must meet the highest standards of efficiency and equity even if it costs more to hold elections and takes longer to determine a winner. States must act now to prepare and budget for future elections especially in New York City where ranked-choice voting, in which voters will choose candidates in order of preference on ballots begins early next year.
Election coverage should be done in a fair, accurate, and impartial manner. Media outlets that are often agenda-driven and hungry for ratings must resist the urge to be first to call an election—no matter how consequential the political office—and not until all votes are appropriately accounted for and accurately interpreted. Our enduring democracy and the rights of all voters—in-person or absentee—deserve nothing less.
Brian Browne is Assistant Vice President for Government Relations at St. John’s University where he also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Political Science.