By Ryan Tolley and Rebecca Carter
We’re just about to finish up this election, and a record-shattering 100 million votes have already been cast across the country. The devastation wrought by COVID-19 (and its disproportionate impact on the health and livelihoods of Black and Latino people) has motivated a surge in vote-by-mail and early voting. For the first time in history, we may see a majority of ballots cast before polls even open on Election Day.
So it might confuse people to learn that we could be waiting days or even weeks to learn the final results of the election. Because of COVID, we almost certainly won’t know all of the winners on Election Day. That’s because mail-in ballots take longer to count because of security measures to verify the accuracy of those ballots. Some states, Illinois included, cannot even start counting mail-in ballots until after polls have closed on election night. In many cases, election officials also will be working with a reduced number of staff because of the pandemic, adding to the delay.
While some pundits may use this delay to breed distrust in the results, the truth is quite different. Let’s be completely transparent: We rarely have all the official numbers on election night. Sure, we typically have a clear picture and can confidently call the election for president that night, but votes always are being counted after Election Day and, in tight down-ballot races, we don’t always have the results right away.
In fact, just this year, states like New Jersey and Georgia took almost 10 days to conclude counting their primary election results. Nothing about that delay made the primary election results illegitimate. We can expect similar delays, or longer, because more voters — 35 million so far — are returning mail ballots to vote safely during the pandemic.
When we take the time to count and verify every ballot, it’s a sign that our democracy is working as it should. In states like Illinois, ballots can be counted up to 14 days after the election as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. That’s an important voter protection at a time when experts estimate that as many as 64 percent of Americans will vote by mail this year.
Further, the need to allow voters to correct their ballots when signatures or addresses don’t seem to match up, could cause further delays in certifying results. Lawmakers in Illinois attempted to address this problem in the fall veto session by implementing a new ballot review process because signature or address discrepancies have a nasty history of disenfranchising people of color. For example, in Florida so far this fall, Black voters’ ballots have represented roughly 40% of all ballots that were deemed deficient and needed to be corrected. Such a high rate of ballot rejection is a form of voter suppression.
In a pandemic, vote by mail is a safe and secure option. But historically and currently, Black and Brown community members have valid concerns about whether their vote will, in fact, be counted in such a system. If election authorities need more time to ensure that racial discrimination doesn’t discount mass numbers of voters, then so be it.
Voters are eager to know the results of the many national, state and local races. But given the increased popularity of vote by mail and the continued barriers many Black and Brown voters face, it is critical that sufficient time is provided to count every vote. The last thing we want is to relive the 2000 Bush v. Gore recount, rushing to get results out before an arbitrary deadline without having all the votes tallied.
When it comes to elections, accuracy is more important than speed, and every eligible voter should have their voice heard and their vote counted.
Ryan Tolley and Rebecca Carter are advocates working with Just Democracy Illinois, a broad-based and diverse coalition that works to protect and promote the value of every vote, no matter the geographic, racial, ethnic or party affiliation of the voter.
This Op-Ed was originally published in the Daily Herald here.