There is no federal law that mandates how—and more importantly when—state and local officials are required to tabulate results after an election. Therefore, each state has separate processes and procedures on how this is done, which creates a problematic patchwork of different rules and regulations across the country. This is a major reason why we know some state’s results instantly and why it sometimes takes days, or even weeks, for final results in various states across the country.
In the same vein, the rise of voting by mail and absentee voting has elevated this issue and made it all more important to our elections today.
Before the mail-in ballots are counted, they need to go through a process called “pre-canvassing,” which is essentially just getting the ballots ready to be counted, opened, ensuring the signatures match. Every state has different timelines and procedures for doing this, leading to huge variation across the different states.
Some states allow this process to take place weeks before election day (such as Florida), while others only allow it to begin on election day at 7:00 a.m. (such as Pennsylvania), and everything in between, which means there are various different rules for each state in regard to what elections officials can do and when they can act.
After the infamous election of 2000, Florida changed its procedures to allow the extended time for pre-canvassing and counting of mail in votes.
Pennsylvania, on the other hand, recently had a few different proposals to change the way they count but the Democrat Governor and Republican Legislature could not agree on a bill to reform their election processes.
Today, there are efforts across the country to change the rules and allow for earlier counting, so as to stop the confusion and allegations of impropriety in close elections where results sometimes aren’t known for weeks. Michigan, for example recently changed its laws to allow communities of over 10,000 individuals to start their counting earlier.
In the 21st century, the United States should not have this much difficulty creating an accurate and fast count of the ballots coming in. Continually delayed results sows distrust in our institutions and creates a vast array of problems for a functioning democratic system.
We must take a critical eye to our election system to ensure every valid vote is counted which does not mean a one size fits all for every state. But when it comes to processing ballots, states that drag out their vote counting process must follow Florida’s lead and allow for the early processing of ballots especially in high population areas, or areas with a overwhelming mail in vote. Otherwise, distrust in our system will continue to proliferate and our democratic processes will suffer as a result.