“Take some deep breaths and prepare to wait for election results,” advises Ellen Weintraub, former chair of the Federal Election Commission. Given the enormous volume of mail in ballots expected this November, it is quite possible the winners will not be known on Election Night.
But there will be no problem determining the President in plenty of time for Inauguration Day on January 20, 2021. In Great Britain and many other countries the transfer of power comes the day following the election, we take two and half months. This is more than enough time to count our ballots. The argument that somehow mail in ballots will destroy the system or are ripe with fraud is mostly hogwash.
First let’s look at the election dates as set in law, and the best place is the National Conference of State Legislatures. The NCSL explains that we are not choosing the President by popular vote but through the Electoral College, and the Electors will be chosen in each state on November 3, 2020.
That is the date set in federal law, and has not been a problem until this year. By law, all Americans vote for president and congress on a single day. But counting those votes with millions of postal ballots is a different matter.
California has seen increased mail balloting in recent years and so the legislature has extended the time for the arrival of the mail ballots at county registrars, and for 2020 it will be up to17 days after Election Day, or November 20. This date does not seem to make sense unless you assume the Post Office will take 17 days to deliver a ballot mailed in California.
Democrats argue that this extra time may be necessary because the Trump appointed Postmaster General Louis Dejoy has imposed new reforms in the system they say will slow down the delivery of mailed ballots. It is not clear this is the case, but the 17 day window gives plenty of time for all mailed ballots to arrive at the county voter registrar’s office.
Each mail ballot must be checked to make sure it is from a registered voter and the signature on the ballot matches the voter signature on file. This has slowed the counting process in California, but state law is very specific that on December 1 all counties must report their total presidential returns to the Secretary of State. By December 5, the Secretary of State must certify the election and the slate of electors.
Federal law then sets December 14 as the date for the electors to meet in their state capitals and cast their ballots. The results are transmitted to the Secretary of the Senate. On January 6, 2021 the results are announced in a joint session of Congress, and on January 20 at noon the president is sworn into office.
So what about the arguments against postal voting?
The Post Office cannot handle the increased volume of mail ballots. Democrats have been darkly warning that the postal reforms will slow mail delivery and endanger the election. But the numbers do not support this. In 2016, American voters cast 138 million ballots. Suppose every one of these voters now votes by mail, will it overwhelm the Post Office? The answer is no. The US postal service handles 182 million first class mail pieces each day; and 472 million total mail pieces each day. Even if it had to handle an additional 138 million mail ballots, the Post Office could handle this. And people do not mail all their ballots on the same day; some states like California allow extra time for the ballots to be received at the counties.
In July, the Post Office warned many states that their electoral windows were too narrow for the Post Office to deliver the ballots and get them back. The Post Office encouraged states to lengthen the time to receive and return ballots. There is no evidence all ballots cannot be delivered on time. In the California primary, the Post Office delivered seven million ballots, 72 percent of the total, without long delays; in 2018, some 8.3 million Californians voted by mail, 65 percent of the total without unnecessary delays.
Mail voting increases fraud. This is a favorite argument of President Trump and some Republicans, but there is no truth to it. The conservative Heritage Foundation maintains a database of election fraud convictions. Over the past 20 years 250 million ballots have been cast by mail. Heritage found 1,200 hundred cases of fraud, with 1,100 convictions.
Of that 143 were for mail ballot fraud, a fraud rate for mail ballots of 0.00006 percent of all votes cast. Trump’s claims seem to turning off some of his own supporters from voting at all; older voters tend to be the mostly likely postal voters. Trump is actually hurting his own re-election by this argument.
Mail voting hurts Republicans. This is another Trump favorite and has an element of truth to it but only because of Republican incompetence. Democrats mastered “vote harvesting” in 2018 where party volunteers gather mail ballots and deliver them to the counties. The ballots are not fraudulent as each voter must sign their ballot for it to be counted but this is an effective way to increasing your vote. Democrats have figured out vote harvesting which is legal in California and some states; Republicans complain about it but seem unable to make use of it. If you do not master modern campaign techniques you will lose.
Too many mail ballots are rejected. This is a favorite Democratic argument; they point to thousands of mail ballots that were rejected by registrars in the 2020 primary for being late or unsigned. Like the Republican arguments, it is without merit. In the 2020 primaries an average of about one percent of mail ballots were rejected, mostly for arriving too late. In Florida, a presidential battleground state, some 18,000 ballots, 1.3 percent of the total, were rejected in the March primary for arriving late. Democrats sued demanding the deadlines be extended but a judge rejected their claims noting that Florida’s election day deadline “eliminates the problem of missing, unclear, or even altered postmarks, eliminates delay that can have adverse consequences, and eliminates the remote possibility that in an extremely close election — Florida has had some — a person who did not vote on or before Election Day can fill out and submit a ballot later.”
California has created a problem by extending the arrival period to 17 days after the election. Supposedly the ballots all need to be postmarked by November 3, but some ballots will show up without postmarks, and the statutory language is very confusing about whether these ballots need to be counted. In California, as in most other states, the counties provide drop-off centers to leave your ballot early and Election Day polling places. There is no excuse for not getting your mail ballot in on time.
Mail ballots are overwhelming the system. This is another favorite Trump argument and he points to a New York congressional primary where the results were not known for six weeks. But that was one primary; an overwhelming number of mail ballots were cast in the 2020 primaries and all were counted within a reasonable time.
States clearly need to upgrade their counting systems to allow for the massive number of mail ballots, and many have. California has extended the date at which counties can begin to count the mail ballots from 10 days before the election to 29 days before the election. Given the flood of mail ballots we can expect, this will make it easier to determine winners on Election Night.
There is a lot of nonsense being spread about mail ballots. This is true, and the prime culprit is President Trump. What he is saying about mail balloting is simply not true. In May Trump tweeted: “the Governor of California is sending ballots to millions of people, anyone living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there, will get one. That will be followed up with professionals telling all of these people, many of whom have never even thought of voting before, how, and for whom, to vote.”
None of this is true. Mailed ballots will go out to registered voters, not everyone. There is no evidence of “professionals telling people how to vote,” but lots of evidence of smart Democrats picking up and delivering ballots from their loyal voters. Perhaps some Republican will remind Trump that old and white people vote heavily by mail; and the first use of mail ballots in California in 1982 helped elect a Republican governor. All people need to do this year is carefully follow the instructions to avoid mistakes, and mail or deliver their ballots well before November 3.