States Have 83 Days To Figure Out How To Get Absentee Voting Right

Almost every state has held a mid-pandemic primary that could show them how to fix mail-in voting before the November election.

Counting Tuesday’s primary elections, 47 states have held votes during the coronavirus pandemic, dealing with massive surges in voting by mail that have served as a dry run for the general election.

It hasn’t always gone well. But given the likelihood that President Donald Trump will try to exploit voting problems for political gain, the lessons that states learn now will be vital come November.

In Connecticut, which held a primary on Tuesday, voters requested over 300,000 absentee ballots, far more than the normal 10,000 to 15,000 requested in past primary elections. The state faced significant problems with the shift: A dispute between the Secretary of State’s office and town clerks delayed the delivery of 20,000 requested ballots, and Tropical Storm Isaias slowed mail delivery across the state.

Ahead of the election, town and city officials were either waiting for thousands of requested ballots to be returned or trying to keep from drowning under a flood of them.

“We’re buried,” Manchester Town Clerk Joseph Camposeo told the Hartford Courant. Meanwhile, Mark Bernacki, the town clerk for New Britain, was wondering, “Where the heck are all the ballots?” according to The Wall Street Journal.

An unprecedented number of absentee ballots flooded election offices during Connecticut's Aug. 11 primary elections.
An unprecedented number of absentee ballots flooded election offices during Connecticut's Aug. 11 primary elections.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Gov. Ned Lamont (D) issued an order on Monday extending the deadline for ballots to be counted until Aug. 13 so long as they were postmarked by Tuesday.

Lamont called the huge number of absentee requests a “stumbling block” on Monday. He added, “Things got slowed up a little bit. That’s why we’re giving a little bit of extra time. Make sure we really have it right in November.”

Other states with primaries on Tuesday saw similar increases in absentee voting. Voters in Minnesota had returned 432,000 absentee ballots out of a total of 637,000 requested ahead of Tuesday’s statewide primary elections. In 2018, voters had requested just 73,000 such ballots.

In Wisconsin, voters returned 554,000 absentee ballots before the close of polls on Tuesday, up from 106,000 in 2018.

And in Vermont, 104,000 absentee ballots were returned before Tuesday, about two-and-a-half times more than in 2016 and 2018 combined.

That kind of huge increase has been the norm for primary elections during the pandemic as states have loosened absentee voting rules and voters have sought a safe way to participate in elections. In at least 24 state primaries this year, a majority of the votes were cast by absentee ballot, according to FiveThirtyEight.

How states handle this massive increase in voting by mail will be vital to a successful general election. Trump is already trying to undermine faith in both absentee voting and the outcome of the presidential election whether he wins or loses. So it’s important for states to preempt any problems that the president may lie about in November.

As one would expect, some states are having an easier time than others.

Minnesota election officials warned residents that the final vote tallies in the primary may be slightly delayed as they process what Secretary of State Scott Simon called a “tidal wave” of absentee ballots. It’s not just the crush of counting all those ballots that will delay results, but the wait for additional absentee ballots to come in. Minnesota will count ballots received up to two days after Tuesday so long as they were postmarked by Tuesday.

“It might take a few days or up to a week until ballots are all in and counted,” Simon told the Star Tribune. “This doesn’t mean that anything has gone wrong.”

In Vermont, election officials appeared generally unworried about the increase in absentee voting on Tuesday. The state has rather loose rules on accepting ballots, which means officials won’t have to review them for minor errors ― something that has caused significant problems and delays in counting ballots and reporting election results in states with strict rules.

Some states provide easy ballot drop-off sites for absentee voters to avoid postal delays.
Some states provide easy ballot drop-off sites for absentee voters to avoid postal delays.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“We’re really not expecting anything different,” Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos said prior to his state’s primaries. “I think it’s going to be pretty straightforward.”

Even before Tuesday, Wisconsin had some experience with conducting an election during the pandemic. In April, the state held its presidential primary and a state Supreme Court election, which were the nation’s first elections held during the coronavirus stay-at-home orders. The state saw 1 million absentee ballots cast and long lines at the reduced number of in-person polling locations. Some voters who wanted to cast absentee ballots could not because they did not receive them. Vote totals were not publicly reported until one week after the election in order to report all final results on one day and not trickle out results over the course of a week.

Tuesday’s primary for congressional, state and local offices was expected to see a slightly lower turnout than April’s election, but still higher than in previous years. This could help reduce the load on Wisconsin election officials counting absentee ballots. The state has also opened far more in-person voting locations in response to complaints about cities opening far too few in April. In Milwaukee, for example, there were 168 in-person polling sites on Tuesday, up from five in April.

As of Tuesday, any woes in that day’s elections appeared minor next to the disaster that occurred in New York’s June 23 primary. The biggest problem in New York was that one out of five absentee ballots were rejected. The reasons ranged from the Postal Service failing to postmark ballots that had prepaid postage to the state’s extremely restrictive rules around ballot errors. Unlike in Vermont, New York election laws severely punish voters who make minor mistakes on their ballots by invalidating the ballots and providing no process to correct errors.

But New York’s legislature has already moved to fix these problems ahead of the November election. State lawmakers passed legislation that would enable no-excuse absentee voting in the general election and allow voters to correct errors on their ballots. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has said he’s looking at other moves that could ensure ballots are not improperly or accidentally invalidated in November.

States now have 83 days to make sure they get it right.