The wait for this election to produce clear results may not be pretty. But Washington — and the nation — can learn more from the coming days and weeks than simply which party earned more votes.
For good and ill, this intense juncture ought to be the West Seattle Bridge moment for how we conduct elections. We’re overdue on some repair-or-replace decisions.
The stress provides a teachable moment. Look no further than the momentum the vote-by-mail movement gained this year. Across the nation, the pressure to make elections safe during COVID-19 led more states to help people send in ballots remotely as Washington does. And the system is creaking as more places try it out.
The U.S. Supreme Court is still grappling with challenges to state-by-state deadlines for when mailed ballots must be received. That fight needs to be addressed. It seems unsustainable that in the same election, Washington and 22 other states — as of this writing — use Election Day as a postmark deadline, and American voters elsewhere have to rely on postal delivery happening in time to count all votes election night. The president has not been shy about demanding rapid results. But patience and accuracy must transcend the desire to get this bitter contest over with.
Election Day doesn’t end the election. After the last vote is cast, the counting and disputes get aired in public. Patience won’t be easy, but it’s a required commodity this month. Here’s what else to expect as we’re electing this year.
We’ll wait. Washingtonians know vote counts will dribble in across the next couple weeks. Laws and logistical constraints affect elections offices across the country differently. At least two states, New York and Alaska, won’t report mail vote results election night.
The mail isn’t the only reason we’ll have to wait for Washington’s results. Here’s a little math: King County expects a 90% turnout, which is about 1.3 million votes. King County has never processed and counted more than roughly half that number of ballots on election night.
The county’s elections officials tell me they aim to have 700,000 or more ballots confirmed and tabulated Nov. 3. That means hundreds of thousands more King County votes — likely heavily Democratic — won’t show up until later days’ ballot drops. Closely divided partisan races for the sex education referendum, secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction, among others, could swing on those later counts.
Elections offices across the country play it differently. Swing-state Wisconsin, for example, is likely to announce results very late in the night. State law there requires that the count, once it starts, is a marathon that can’t stop. Across America, this counting stage is crucial. It’s where court intervention swung the election in 2000.
… And wait. The dates to watch are weeks away. Yes, still. Washington certifies election results Nov. 24, two days before Thanksgiving. Each state’s electors for the Electoral College must be named by Dec. 8, six days before that entity votes to decide the presidency.
The antique Electoral College machinery can get fouled in virtually endless ways. The process looks straightforward enough: each state sends its electors, and the candidate who gets 270 or more becomes president. Yet potential undemocratic outcomes abound. Two to watch: state governments have power to overrule a disputed popular vote in naming electors. And if the Electoral College doesn’t give any candidate 270 votes, the decision goes to the House of Representatives.
When the process moves into Congress, the Electoral College count is set aside. Each state’s U.S. House of Representatives delegation gets one vote to pick the president. Republicans lead more states’ delegations and are likely to keep that status. But Democrats hold the House and are likely to retain it, which comes with the power to refuse to conduct business. That’s a recipe for a standoff, if not a conflict.
… And we should learn from it. This election may provide definitive evidence that the Electoral College hobbles our form of democracy, as I’ve long felt. In my time living in small and large states, swing states and solid ones, the power of my presidential vote has varied wildly. That shouldn’t be the case if all are equal under the law. It’s good for election security — and innovations like vote by mail — to let each state administer elections independently. But the national executive should have reason to be accountable to every state, not just certain ones on a perceived pathway to 270 electoral votes.
This election has done much to reveal how loosely bound our state election systems are in handling their roles in naming a president. Voter access, absentee ballots and early voting exist today in a patchwork that needs fine-tuning. The great vote-by-mail expansion will test several potential paths toward fixing it. The fundamental challenge remains in building an election that’s functional for every American. The pressure of this year can reveal both what works and what is too flawed to tolerate any longer.