National vote-by-mail standards needed to avoid election confusion
Last updated 10/22/2020 at 4:25pm
I’ve lived in two exclusive vote-by-mail states during my time as an eligible voter. My first ballot ever cast was via the mailbox in Oregon. There the ballots are due in the hands of election officials by 8 p.m. on election night to be counted. Now living in Washington, I’ve trained myself not to worry about election results until the Friday following election day due to the state’s postmark deadline eligibility for ballots.
I’ve often wondered how the country would react to the Washington experience of not knowing election results for days (if not weeks) until after the election. For better or worse it looks like we are about to find out.
It is clear that vote-by-mail across the country for national elections is likely here to stay. While it is too late to bring order to the 2020 national election, going forward it is important to bring some semblance of uniformity for how these mail ballots will be handled to avoid confusion. This is why Congress should adopt a variation of either the Oregon or Washington ballot deadline requirement, so the same standard is applied across the country for national elections.
Having voted by mail both in Oregon and Washington, I prefer the Oregon model of knowing the universe of ballots to be counted on election day. Should Congress agree, a variation of the Oregon criteria to apply across the country could be modeled something like this:
• Ballots must be in hand of election officials by 8 p.m. on election day;
• Those postmarked the Friday before the election will still be eligible for tabulation in official totals regardless of when received; and
• Ballots can be pre-processed as received but not tabulated before 8 p.m. on election day.
Should the national election debate lead Congress to prefer a ballot postmark deadline like Washington has instead, here is a potential model:
• Ballots must be in hand of election officials by 8 p.m. or postmarked by election day;
• Ballots can be processed as received but not tabulated until 3 days after election day (Friday if election Tuesday); and
• Ballot results cannot be released until 3 days after election day (Friday if election Tuesday).
Under this model, election day would become more of when ballots must be postmarked by while the election results wouldn’t be reported until the following Friday. This would prevent having wild swings in reported totals each day as more ballots come in.
In Washington, for example, the daily reporting of new ballots can appear to flip the race results with election day leads evaporating. While not a sign of fraud, seeing large swings in election results days after the election can lead to voter mistrust.
Whether a variation of the Oregon, Washington or some other model is used, one national criteria for vote-by-mail ballots should exist for national elections. Otherwise we can look forward to more national elections via lawsuits as appears to be shaping up for 2020 due to the different state mail ballot eligibility requirements currently in place across the country.
Having the same vote-by-mail requirements apply equally across the country for national elections will help build voter trust and reduce claims of fraud by preventing the daily drip of election results changing with each mail pick up.