In mid-August, the top elections official in Philadelphia pleaded with legislators for clearance to begin processing mail-in ballots three weeks before Election Day.
"We risk citizens of the world going to bed on November 3, not from the close margin of the election, but from the sheer number of ballots," wrote Lisa Deeley, Philadelphia city commissioners chair, a Democrat, in a letter to the top-ranking state senator and representative.
At least 18 states allow mail ballot processing before Election Day, beyond just signature matching, according to Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. But that doesn't mean they'll have a tabulated number ahead of the election. However, depending on the state, officials are able to open envelopes or even matching ballot numbers against poll books — giving them a head start on Election Day.
But Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — three states that could decide the presidency — must wait. Each of these states were decided by razor-thin margins in 2016, and each has seen unprecedented increases in mail-in voting in primaries this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Local election officials say they're facing an overwhelming workload that could be eased by early processing, and some say they won't have conclusive results on November 3 unless they can begin opening ballots early.
"We have been set up to fail"
This is the first year any Pennsylvanian could vote by mail, and officials initially expected a gradual shift away from in-person voting. But the pandemic drove mail-in voting in the state from fewer than 100,000 absentee ballots in the 2016 primary election to over 1.4 million in June. Local election officials say that number could double in the presidential election.
Philadelphia officials finished tallying the city's nearly 350,000 ballots, about half of which were mail-in or absentee, two weeks after Election Day. To varying degrees, counties across the state faced similar delays. It's not just about speed — the process can also lead to final results that differ from initial readings. The leading candidates in 10 races changed after Election Day in Pennsylvania's 2020 primary, according to a report by the Pennsylvania Department of State. Elections officials worry that the same could be true in the presidential race.
Neither of the Pennsylvania legislators whom Deeley asked for assistance, both Republicans, responded to her letter, said Nick Custodio, her deputy in the Philadelphia City Commissioners office. On Monday, one of them introduced legislation that would allow counties to open and scan ballots three days early. But the Democratic governor is unlikely to sign it because the bill also has a provision that would move up the deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot, a remedy to a tight ballot delivery timeline that could result in reduced voting.
Not all counties saw delays in the state's primary results. Forrest Lehman, the director of elections in central Pennsylvania's Lycoming County, said he doubled his staff and was able to tally all of the county's mail-in ballots by the end of Election Day. But he, too, fears the workload will be too great in November, when he expects up to 20,000 mail-in ballots, up from about 7,500 in the primary.
"I have to run hyperlocal in-person voting at the same time I'm doing absentee and mail-in voting," he said. "It's like I'm running two elections at one time."
Lehman and other local election officials have asked the legislature to allow early ballot processing since before the state expanded to no-excuse mail-in voting in the fall.
"There is a widespread feeling of frustration among counties in this state that we have been set up to fail," he said.
In its August report, the Pennsylvania secretary of state recommended that the legislature allow counties to begin pre-canvassing "in the weeks before Election Day." But time is running out for the state legislature to act.
"Other states have already figured this out"
A record 1.6 million voters in Michigan voted absentee during the August primary on Tuesday, August 4, and all counties reported final results by the next night. In November, Michigan's Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson expects 3 million people or more to cast absentee ballots. She says results may be delayed until Thursday or Friday of that week without early processing.
"Other states have already figured this out, so I'm hopeful we'll be able to do so come November," Benson told CBS News' Major Garrett earlier this month. "If the legislature fails to act, citizens not just in Michigan, but around the country need to know exactly why it will take a little bit longer, perhaps even a few days longer, to get the full results out of Michigan."
Benson's predecessor, Ruth Johnson, is now a Republican state senator who sponsored a bill that would allow clerks in cities with at least 25,000 people to begin opening ballot envelopes the Monday before the election. Ballots would have to stay in their secrecy sleeves to prevent anyone from seeing actual votes ahead of time. Johnson believes there are enough votes to pass the bill but says the legislature "can't wait any longer."
The Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights didn't finish counting ballots until after 1 a.m. on August 5, the day after Michigan's primary. That was partly because of the more than 3,500 absentee ballots returned on Election Day, but also because processing those ballots requires so much time, according to Melanie Ryska, the Sterling Heights Clerk. In the primary, Ryska's office counted nearly 20,000 absentee votes and it's expecting 50,000 in the presidential race. The suburb would need to begin processing early to avoid more delays.
"A lot of the time in an absentee voter counting board is committed to opening the envelopes, verifying the number, tearing the stub off and that sort of thing," said Ryska. "If we can at least start processing early and have all of that said and done beforehand, I believe that we can be done at a reasonable hour."
She added, "When I say a reasonable hour, it is going to be into the wee hours of Wednesday morning."
In Wisconsin, Claire Woodall-Vogg, the executive director of the city of Milwaukee Elections Commission, is preparing for 150,000 to 200,000 absentee ballots in November. She's planning to add more election workers and machines to help speed up the counting, which lasted past 2 a.m. the day after the August primary when there were about 50,000 absentee votes.
A bill to allow clerks to start processing ballots early didn't get a vote earlier this year, and changes aren't likely before November. Woodall-Vogg said that early processing would not only speed up the count, it would make the Election Day workload more manageable.
"We would just get a head start and could actually ensure that we have an election workforce that doesn't have to work a 22-hour day like many of them did [in the August primary]," Woodall-Vogg said.
In Madison, Wisconsin's second largest city, the deputy clerk says he's confident his staff can bring results in a timely manner. Jim Verbick said workers do some preparation like alphabetizing ballots to speed up the process. He is expecting 100,000 absentee ballots in November, about twice as many as in the state's primary, but is prepared to reallocate resources if counting slows.
"If we had to allocate some sort of roving staff to a certain place to help them sort of speed up and process a greater percentage to catch up with everyone else, we can certainly do that," Verbick said.
"It's ingrained in us to be accurate."
Pennsylvania's Montgomery County, the third most populous in the state, was counting ballots a week after its June primary. Chief clerk Lee Soltysiak said he'll prioritize accuracy over speed, but without early processing, he's concerned that delayed results could create unfounded doubt around the general election's results.
"It shakes confidence in the system. It creates that space for people to wonder why couldn't we get it done sooner?" he said.
While the pressure will be intense for timely results, especially in battleground states, Soltysiak and other election officials are urging the public to have patience.
"As clerks, it's ingrained in us to be accurate," said Ryska, the Sterling Heights clerk. "My goal and my task is to run an efficient and accurate election and preserve the integrity of that election. It is not to get the results out as fast as possible. While we will do that, people will have to remain patient."