Virtually No State And Local Races Are Decided On Election Night, So Why Pressure For Early Results?

Caity Maple
Principal & Lobbyist for Quintana, Watts & Hartmann

Oh, election night.

It’s so much more than just the counting and reporting out of how people voted for candidates and on issues, it is a direct — and at times emotional — reflection of what our priorities are and what direction our district, city, county, state or even the nation is heading.

Voting is a reflection of our values.

I remember distinctly during this most recent presidential election the emotional roller coaster I found myself on. Early signs of hope quickly fell to deep despair as I watched the election results appear on live television, and as my friends and I switched between sips of wine and wiping our tears. Election night is an almost therapeutic pastime, and as it turns out, in California it’s almost completely irrelevant.

And nobody really seems to care.

The media still perpetuates the importance of early results, while voters and candidates ardently expect them. Because think about it — what if once the polls closed, they just told you to check back in two weeks?

Well, that was anticlimactic.

And let’s be honest, we like drama in the United States. Learning who the “winner” is late on election night is purely a psychological pleasure that really serves no public policy purpose. We do it for the thrill and because we love competition, which is fine until those results don’t actually reflect reality.

So, if election night results were reliable in the past, what’s the deal now?

As California goes, so does the nation. This saying is particularly true of the progressive policies this state has in terms of empowering voters. As such, we regularly pass laws that increase the accessibility and ease of casting a vote.

One example is the no excuse absentee law. Previous to this, a voter had to have a legitimate “excuse” (e.g. a doctor’s note) to receive a vote-by-mail ballot. Now, any eligible voter can request a vote-by-mail ballot for any reason, and do so permanently.

California also recently passed legislation that allows ballots postmarked by election day that arrive within three business days to be counted, and anotherthat allows voters who forgot to sign their ballot an additional eight days to send in a signature.

These seem like small changes, but they mean a lot in terms of empowering voters, which are increasingly using the vote-by-mail option to participate in democracy.

And of course, there are challenges.

Most notably, vote-by-mail and provisional ballots (the ones you fill out at your polling place if you forgot your mail ballot) require what’s called “signature verification”. Essentially, election officials must verify that you are the person you say you are and that nobody is voting more than once.

This is a long a laborious process, and that’s a good thing.

We want to make sure elections are verified and accurate. We also want to ensure the right person is elected and the right policy implemented. However, because it takes time to do this, it takes time to produce accurate results.

This presidential election was a prime example.

“Counties now have 30 days to complete their count. Given new laws extending the time ballots can be counted and considering the Friday after the election was Veterans Day, the actual deadline to accept late-arriving ballots was Monday, November 14th,” said Kim Alexander, President and Founder of the California Voter Foundation. “That said, almost all of the contests in California had been called on election night, and none of them were decided at the time the election results were completed.”

So why then, with the increasing inaccuracy of election night results, and the realization that they’re pretty much completely useless in California, do we still rely so heavily on them?

I don’t know the answer to that, though I assume culture, tradition and human nature play a big role. Perhaps continuing the practice because of those reasons isn’t so bad in and of itself, but the ramifications for election officials may be a different story.

Not only are we continually expecting officials to do more with lessconsidering the state hasn’t financially contributed to the operation of elections in over six years, but candidates and campaigns, the media and the public are demanding results more quickly than ever. A 24-hour news cycle adds to increased pressure on officials, and no county wants to be the last to report results.

All for what?

To add even more to an already stressful situation, in recent years California began implementing the Voters Choice Act (VCA), which moved participating counties to a “vote center model”. This means each registered voter in those counties will receive a vote-by-mail ballot automatically and can choose from a variety of options to return it. The reason why this may complicate matters, is currently those ballots must be signature verified, and as I mentioned above, that takes time.

And nobody wants to wait.

So to wrap up, we want election officials to provide all of these options, completely accurately (or else scream election fraud), more quickly than humanly possible and without any additional resources, to produce results that are completely irrelevant.

Great, just checking.

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