Former President Donald Trump and his allies seized on the drawn-out vote processing and counting in Pennsylvania during the 2020 election in support of claims that fraud cost him victory in the battleground state — and election officials worry that a replay could be on the horizon in November's crucial Senate and governor races.
And it's not just Pennsylvania. Michigan and Wisconsin are other crucial swing states that allow no-excuse mail-in ballots but give local election offices no time before Election Day to process them.
Election workers' inability to do that work ahead of time means many of the mailed ballots may not get counted on Election Day, delaying results in tight races and leaving a gaping hole for misinformation to potentially surge.
"That time between the polls closing on election night and the last vote being counted is really being exploited by people who want to undermine confidence in the process," said Al Schmidt, a Philadelphia election commissioner during the 2020 presidential election who is now president and CEO of the good-government group Committee of Seventy.
The first step in processing mailed ballots, or pre-canvassing, is a routine but crucial administrative task that allows election workers to verify voters' signatures and addresses, or spot problems that could be fixed by voters. Once ballots are deemed valid, they are removed from their envelopes — another time-consuming task — so they are ready to be counted on Election Day.
Not in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, though. Thirty-eight other states — including Republican-controlled ones such as Florida, Georgia, and Texas — allow mailed ballots to be processed before Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
For the three critical battleground states, such objections fall flat. Efforts since 2020 to give local election workers more time before Election Day to process mailed ballots have died in Republican-controlled legislatures.
Instead, Republicans in those states have sought to tighten restrictions on voting by mail — provisions vetoed by Democratic governors.
"Counting the ballots should be driven by security, not speed," Wisconsin state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, a Republican, said earlier this year as lawmakers were considering legislation on the issue. "Why would we want to give bad actors the chance to see ballots prior to Election Day?"
Republicans helped kill a bipartisan bill that would have allowed more time for processing mailed ballots in Wisconsin amid claims that it would give partisans more time to cheat or leak vote counts early.
Like Pennsylvania, election workers in Michigan and Wisconsin must wait until Election Day to start the pre-canvassing of mailed ballots.
For now, in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, requests for absentee ballots are running below 2020's rate, relieving some of the burden on local election offices.
Still, Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, said it's "a total guess" when counting will finish in Wisconsin's most populous county. She hopes it will wrap up by 11 p.m. on election night. A late rush of dropped-off ballots — as happened in 2020 — isn't expected this year, she said, because courts banned the use of drop boxes.
In Michigan in 2020, lawmakers agreed to give clerks in more populous cities and towns 10 hours on the day before Election Day to process mailed ballots. Clerks unsuccessfully sought a similar provision for this year. The Michigan Secretary of State's office said it was too early to estimate how many absentee ballots might be cast or how long it will take to process them.
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