Washington, US | XINHUA | This election year could well see the largest number of mail-in ballots in recent memory, and many fear that could cause chaos on election night.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many Americans fret over going to the polls in person, fearing that close contact with others while waiting in line could expose them to the novel coronavirus.
So far, 48 percent of those who plan to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will do so by mail, compared with 23 percent of those planning to vote for U.S. President Donald Trump, according to a recent survey from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape project.
However, a growing chorus of critics said the coming avalanche of mail-in votes — likely numbering in the tens of millions — will make counting them a nightmare that could take weeks.
The elections are “flirting with disaster,” former White House attorneys David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey argued in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece.
New York is one major example. More than a month after its June 23 primary elections, state election officials had still not finished counting votes, and some districts had not even started counting them, in a process that usually takes just one day. Over 100,000 mail-in ballots had been rejected in a system designed for in-person voting. Companies that printed ballots could not keep pace with demand, and the U.S. postal service was overwhelmed by too much volume.
To be fair, some states will likely have no problems voting by mail, such as Oregon, a state that has voted entirely by mail since 1998.
But experts said the tighter the race is, the more uncertain it could become.
“If it is a close election, there is the risk of a chaotic election with lawsuits and weeks to count the ballots,” Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Darrell West told Xinhua.
Besides the sheer volume of mail-in votes to be counted, critics said fraud could also become an issue.
Mail-in votes — separate from absentee ballots in which one requests a mailed ballot — are automatically mailed to recipients using their last known address. But in some cases, the intended recipient may no longer reside at the address on file, which means the current resident could theoretically use that ballot to vote twice. Mail-in voting differs from in-person voting, where people show up, show their ID cards to officials, and usually tap in their choice on an electronic machine.
While fraud may not occur in millions of cases, even a few thousand cases could swing an entire state in this tight election.
May elections in city of Paterson, New Jersey, were ordered to be conducted by mail due to Governor Phil Murphy’s draconian lockdown, and the County Board of Elections said fraud was committed.
Other experts said a number of factors could determine how smooth or rocky the elections go.
“A long count isn’t necessarily chaotic, it’s just slow,” Christopher Galdieri, assistant professor at Saint Anselm College, told Xinhua.
“On the other hand, some states will face unprecedented volumes of mail votes which could, if delays are very long, start to bump into deadlines,” Galdieri said.
“And of course a lot depends on the candidates — do they call for patience if the race comes down to a few states taking a long time to count, or do they urge supporters to protest, gather outside facilities where votes are being counted, and the like?” Galdieri said.
Some experts said they believe the elections will go smoothly, but predicted a media circus, meaning a large group of reporters will be there to cover the news event.
“I don’t expect chaos in the elections itself, but I do expect chaos in the media,” Clay Ramsay, a researcher at the University of Maryland, told Xinhua.
“The media will be struggling to predict states for Trump or Biden in the shortest possible time, and some of these calls will be much too hasty,” Ramsay said.
The trend in the national popular vote should be clear by the morning after Election Day. But there will be some states that are very close, which could put the electoral college result in doubt, Ramsay said.
Despite polls showing Biden is in the lead, the outcome of this year’s elections is very difficult to predict, experts said.
“There’s more uncertainty surrounding this election than any other I can remember. Despite state and national polling showing a clear lead for Biden, I don’t think anyone in either party thinks this is in the bag,” Galdieri said.