Election officials across the country and in key battleground states say there could be a delay in reporting election night results in November given the likely surge in mail-in absentee ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Citing data from recent primaries, officials and election experts anticipate that more voters will cast their ballots by mail in this election than in years past and say the public should prepare now for the possibility of delays, so as not to undermine the integrity of the election results.
"We need to be talking about "Election Week," not Election Day," former Homeland Security secretary and Republican Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge told CBS News. "We've seen an unprecedented request for absentee ballots and it may take a little longer." Ridge is the co-chair of the new bipartisan group, VoteSafe.
While five states conduct their elections entirely by mail and 29 states don't require an excuse to vote absentee, not all states are equipped to process the huge uptick in ballots as quickly. New York City election officials are still in the process of counting ballots from the June 23 primary, which took place three weeks ago.
One major issue is that many states aren't allowed to even begin opening returned ballots before Election Day on November 3, putting extra burdens on Election Day workers.
In Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — all states that flipped from Democratic to Republican in 2016 by thin margins, fueling Donald Trump's win — officials are urging their state legislatures to pass bills that would allow them to open and process ballots before Election Day. Without it, they say campaigns could be waiting awhile for results.
"Unless the state legislature were to suddenly reconvene and allow us to start processing early, we likely won't have results until very early the next morning, but we will staff and plan accordingly and have them as soon as possible," Milwaukee Elections Commission executive director Claire Woodall-Vogg said at a press conference on Monday.
Milwaukee is Wisconsin's largest city and will have the most votes to count in November. In 2016, the presidential election in Wisconsin was decided by less than 23,000 votes. In the state's April primary, more than 1 million voters cast absentee ballots, which took a week to count. In the 2016 primary roughly 200,000 cast ballots absentee, and in the general election, there were about 819,000.
In Pennsylvania, 1.5 million voters cast ballots by mail in the June 2 primary, up from 84,000 in the 2016 primary, and marked the first time that more people voted by mail than in person. The surge in mail in ballots took several days to tabulate results.
"Voters should be prepared with the new reality that Pennsylvania's results are probably not going to be known on election night," said Nick Custudio, deputy city commissioner of Philadelphia, the state's largest city. Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by roughly 44,000 votes.
Last fall, the state legislature voted to allow voters to cast absentee ballots without an excuse. That measure in conjunction with the pandemic exploded interest in voting by mail. Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar told CBS News she wouldn't be surprised if she saw vote by mail ballots double in November from the primary, calling it a "huge, huge sea change."
Boockvar said the best way to avoid delayed results in November is for the legislature to pass a provision to allow the opening of mailed ballots before Election Day. The process of opening the envelopes, taking the ballots out, and going through the security measures to ensure their integrity takes the most time, she said, while the actual scanning of the ballot takes the least.
"The time it takes to count the ballots is an investment in accuracy," Boockvar said. "We never want to sacrifice accuracy for speed."
And without similar legislation in Michigan, election officials are sounding the alarm about slow returns. In ordinary election years, results are reported on election night, but "that all changes when people are voting by mail," said. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. "It's simply going to take more time."
Benson told CBS news she anticipates between 2-3 million voters will cast votes by mail in November, up from 1 million in the past. Trump won Michigan in 2016 by less than 11,000 votes.
"When ballots are sent through the mail, there is a longer verification process," Benson said, including a multi-step signature check and several protocols to ensure the integrity and security of the ballot. "That entire process requires dozens more workers and a significant amount of time."
In Georgia, the state election board passed an emergency ruling to allow election officials to begin opening mailed ballots eight days before the June 9 primary. Over 50% of voters cast ballots by mail in that primary, up from five percent in the past, according to the chair of the Fulton County elections board. "It was like having a Macy's standalone store switch over entirely in the Christmas season to become a mail order house operation...it was tremendously stressful."
Florida has been able to open mail ballots 15 days before Election Day, and in the pandemic the window has been extended to 22 days.
The Sunshine State is unfortunately accustomed to an Election Day without results, given the 2000 election that went all the way to the Supreme Court which decided the case the next month, in December.
According to the Federal Election Commission, Dec. 8 (35 days from Election Day) is the deadline to report results.
But election officials are concerned about any attempts to undermine results if they take long to come in, especially since President Trump distrusts mail-in voting.
Last week the president repeated false claims of widespread vote-by-mail fraud. "People are just now seeing how bad, dishonest and slow it is. Election results could be delayed for months. No more big election night answers? 1% not even counted in 2016. Ridiculous! Just a formula for RIGGING an Election," he tweeted.
Polls shows a polarized view of mail-in voting. The recent CBS News battleground tracker found that most Democrats and Biden supporters favored making it easier to vote by mail in their states while more Republicans and Trump voters preferred not to. In Florida for example, 59 percent of Biden backers preferred vote by mail while 25% of Trump supporters did.
Trump's claims about vote by mail as a "formula" for fraud are unverified. "The problem is one of scale. The process was really built for a lower volume of vote-by-mail ballots," says Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "It's not like it's taking longer for anything beyond the sheer volume of what we're seeing."
The president's claims that some mail in ballots aren't counted bears some truth. Ballots can be rejected for missing signatures or missing the postmarked deadline. An Associated Press report found that California rejected 100,000 ballots in the primary this year because of such mistakes. And an NPR report found that 65,000 ballots in primaries across the country this year were dismissed because they did not arrive in time. Those numbers may seem small, but in a close race could be open to litigation that could further stall the process.
In Broward County, a key Florida county, election officials threw out roughly 800 ballots, a spokesman for the supervisor of elections told CBS News. Eight were rejected because of an unclear signature and the remaining ballots contained no signature at all. "The most common reasons for ballots not counted are ballots that have no signature, an obviously wrong signature, or they have come in after Election Day," said spokesman Steven Vancore.
With the president's criticisms and the possibility of delayed results, elections officials view countering disinformation as just another part of the job.
"It's incumbent upon all of us to be very transparent in everything we are doing," said Benson, the Michigan secretary of state. Benson said she plans for a statewide audit to show "that the machines accurately counted ballots across the state....and to ensure voters' confidence in our elections process does not waiver."
Adam Brewster contributed to this report.