The U.S. presidential election may have been called for Joe Biden on Saturday, but the vote-counting was far from over. As Biden supporters danced in the streets this weekend, election workers in counties across the country remained inside windowless warehouses and dim office buildings, poring through mail-in and provisional ballots to determine the final results. That includes swing states with razor-thin margins such as Georgia, Wisconsin and Arizona, as well as solidly-blue states like California and Oregon.
In an election where a global pandemic and divisive incumbent drove record levels of voter turnout and a deluge of mail-in ballots, the slow pace of ballot tabulation was predicted. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t frustrating. Given its short-lived potential to determine the outcome of the election last week, the left-leaning swing state of Nevada (which the Associated Press called for Biden on Saturday) was for a brief moment one of the most closely watched — and memed — for its perceived sluggishness. On social media, Nevada was the sloth from Zootopia. Nevada was counting votes on one hand,then losing track and checking out his fingernails instead. While the world was “waiting to see who the next U.S. President is,” Nevada wasplaying solitaire.
Nevada reminds me of that DMV scene in Zootopia
GIF7:38 PM · Nov 5, 2020
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The drawn-out election has also become a target of President Donald Trump and his supporters, who have cast unsubstantiated doubt on the vote-counting process, particularly in heavily Democratic Clark County, the home of Las Vegas. There, multiple lawsuits by the Trump campaign have failed to provide evidence of widespreadfraud, and the state’s Attorney General has called such claims “baseless.” Still, at rallies in front of the Clark County Elections Department organized under the hashtag “Stop the Steal,” Trump supporters highlighted the perceived delays as a source of their suspicion that officials are intentionally helping Biden secure victory. “I think the election should be decided — all the votes should be counted by election night,” said a 61-year-old man who identified himself as Eric wearing a red “Keep America Great” hat.
Yet election experts insist that the Silver State was not an illustration of what went wrong, nor was its count even technically delayed. To the contrary, said Kathleen Hale, a political science professor at Auburn University and a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Election Officials, it served as a wider-than-usual window into what went right as Americans picked their president, with lessons that extend beyond the extraordinary 2020 cycle.
“The election process is systematic, organized, articulated and time-dependent, and the steps that need to be in place to execute a major policy change take time — more time than is generally acknowledged or reported,” Hale said. “It is a human process, with real people involved.”
The humans of Nevada’s election administration did indeed have major policy change to contend with this year: AB4, a state law that sent absentee ballots to all registered voters, passed this summer as an emergency response to Covid-19. As in other states that sent ballots to registered voters in response to the pandemic — including California, New Jersey and Vermont — they saw a historic surge of mail-in voting.
This was a major break from the past for Nevada, which has previously favored in-person and early voting, said Jennifer A. Russell, the public information officer for the Nevada secretary of state. In the 2016 election, only 6% of voters cast absentee ballots; the rest cast their votes on Election Day or at an early voting center, mostly on voting machines, making for a quick and easy Election Night call. Not so this year: As of Tuesday, secretary of state data shows that 49% of voters chose to vote with a mail-in ballot.
That created a lot of paper, and several new processing steps for a state that previously relied on mechanized processes. “It’s like the difference between using an Evite system for gathering RSVPs for your wedding, and taking every single envelope, looking at it, opening it up, and touching it and managing it by hand,” said Hale.
For example, in Clark County, which saw the vast majority of paper ballots that had to be counted past Election Day in Nevada, each mail ballot undergoes a digital scan, signature verification and, if there is a legibility issue, additional review by a bipartisan team of election officials. Absentee ballots are cross-checked to ensure no vote is counted twice.
Other states with a long history of sending every voter a mail-in ballot, including Oregon and Washington, complete these processes more quickly. But it took them decades of election cycles to smooth out their paper-heavy voting processes, said Hale. And in other states that revved up mail-in voting this year, the winner was so clear by the close of polls on election night that their races were called almost instantly, unlike in battleground Nevada, where it took days of processing for Biden to claim a decisive lead. (As more votes are counted, that lead has widened, and now he’s expected to win the state by a greater margin than Clinton did in 2016.) Still, other states are still counting, too: As of Nov. 11, California, was just 92% of the way through its ballots, according to the Associated Press.
“If margins have been large enough in the past that those results haven’t mattered, that is one thing. But the idea that we think those results are complete is inaccurate,” said Hale. “If we want every vote to count, we need to count every vote, and act like we mean it.”
More money, more options
What can be carried into future elections from this unprecedented year? One lesson from 2020’s record-breaking turnout is that voters appreciate having options, such as voting by mail, said Hale. “Policymakers can expect to see strong interest in making permanent any of the features that worked for voters,” Hale said.
From a procedural standpoint, allowing counties to pre-process ballots that arrive before Election Day can relieve some of the burden that comes with a high volume of mail-in ballots, much like early voting takes some of the pressure off of a high volume of Election Day returns, Hale said. Nevada is among the states that now allow for early ballot processing, but many states do not have that option.
Another lesson: Giving voters expanded voting options requires funding and training, especially to be able to process ballots in a timely manner.
“It will be important, going forward, to really think about the integrity of elections as an element of democracy — as a government activity — rather than something that is outsourced to charitable foundations,” Hale said. “A national dedicated funding stream that reaches local offices would be welcome, as would a call for local governments to get in the game to support the work of election offices in their communities.”
Clark County’s registrar of voters Joe Gloria has repeatedly stressed that his team of more than 200 election workers are doing the best they can, given limited resources and pandemic-related constraints.
“I can’t nail anything down that specifically slowed us down,” Gloria said at a press conference over the weekend.“We simply don’t have the equipment, the facilities, the staff that have been trained in that area to keep up with the pace.” As for how Clark County’s experience this year might inform future planning, county spokesperson Dan Kulin said in a text, “We are focused on finishing this election.”
But that’s easier said than done, not only because of the unprecedented volume of mail but also lawsuits by the Trump campaign. Spending hours in court has used up valuable time for election officials, saidRussell, the Nevada secretary of state spokesperson. And the rallies outside the elections department, where protesters have sometimes called to “lock up” Gloria himself, have been an extra burden on people counting votes inside.
“They’ve been trying to stall our process from the very beginning,” said Annette Magnus, the executive director of the progressive communications group Battle Born Progress, which advocated for AB4. Along with Russell and Hale, she praised Gloria for acting with integrity and care even as his office turned into a fishbowl for the world. (Ameme on Battle Born Progress’s Facebook page portrays Gloria as a haloed patron saint of “process and precision.”)
In the face of baseless legal challenges, being able to point to an accurate and transparent process will be crucial, she added.
“We want Joe and his team to go slow, we want them to be meticulous,” said Magnus. “If they don’t, it’s going to lead to the Republicans trying to create more chaos with the system.”