This week, leading up to election night, we discuss What We Don’t Know about ballot counting. The 2020 election will go down in history for many reasons, not only for its contentious campaigning but the process of voting alone during a global pandemic. The second presidential debate ended abruptly, disrupted by Trump's diagnosis of COVID-19, coupled with his refusal to continue discussions virtually. After hosting separate town halls, Biden and Trump returned for one final debate before the election.
As you may have seen on the news, there are a lot of worries about how the country will react to the results. Not only do we live in divisive times, but the ballot-counting process will be much different. Typically, we have the results on the evening of November 3rd, but some predict that we may not have the results for weeks after election night. So, we thought it’d be interesting to go through the history of voting and ballot counting to see how it’s changed throughout the centuries.
Many states have adjusted the election processes to adapt to health concerns, such as offering early voting or mail-in options in places where this was previously unavailable. However, we have also faced the removal of mailboxes and polling locations. All of these changes have elevated fear in American voters who urgently want to have their voices heard in the democracy we have known for centuries.
Casting a vote should be the most straightforward task in the year 2020 with all of our technological advancements. We have come a long way, with most polling locations upgraded to electronic voting.
During pre-revolutionary wartime, voting was counted vocally. Can you imagine screaming your vote out loud in City Hall? Once write-in votes gained popularity, Americans had to show up with their paper and pencil to submit for their votes and remember correct spelling as well as the list of candidates until the 1800s. By this time, people would add their names under a list of candidates displayed publicly. Eventually, the ballot box idea would help accommodate the fast-growing governments and elections that were getting too large and varied to vote in one place.
Voters could hand-select the ballot of who they wanted and put it in the box, which was also a very public affair. Still, after the civil war, privacy became necessary as the country first saw major political division. Private voting for safety and peace became essential and led us to voting polls as we know them today.
Ballot Machines Through the Years
Let’s take a look at how ballot machines have evolved throughout the years.
1848-1892: Voting secretly with written ballots on "ballot tickets" collected in wooden boxes.
1908: Variations of paper ballots with crayon markers to more printed ballots
1944: Gear and Lever
1972: Individual Voting machines become common
2000: Punch card voting began. It was done privately and on a page known as the butterfly ballot for its shape pressed into the machine. This process brought about concerns for accuracy during the Bush/Gore race, where the term 'hanging chad' was being recited on all news outlets of the time as the nation awaited a recount.
The hanging chad refers to a ballot incorrectly punched and not being read by the machines correctly.
Who better to explain the Hanging Chad better than Henry Rollins in this video
As of 2002, polling sites got an upgrade to scanners or electronic touch screens, which vary between states. While moving from shouting candidates' names out loud to electronic voting is advancement, some are concerned that this method could open the door to security breaches with cyber hacking.
Today, one can expect an in-person voting day to be either a short or very long wait, 6ft apart, in line. Once you enter the polling station, you'll likely be offered some hand sanitizer, a smile from a volunteer poll worker, and be ushered to a small, private space to cast your vote.
The Ballot's Journey
So, what happens to the ballot after it leaves your hands?
What is the Electoral College?
Established in the constitution, electors determine who wins the state based on population, so larger states have more electoral votes than others. This process is why many oppose the electoral system as it doesn't factor in actual voter numbers, the popular vote.
Watch this video from TED Ed for a better understanding of Electoral Votes
Typically, elections conclude by the end of the night. An official announcement is known as an 'official canvas' (final vote) ruled within 21 days; however, many suspect that this year will take weeks.
While many have been discussing the validity of mail-in voting lately, it's essential to know that it's not a new process by any means. Absentee and mail-in voting existed since the 1800s and took off during the civil war, where one would have to have a good reason, such as fighting a war. Voters would participate from hospitals or camps away from home.
By 1917, absentee ballots expanded to anyone away from home due to specific work that was increasing travel demands during industrialization like railroad construction. For decades to follow, applying for absentee voting was common among travelers and the military without any cause for concern. California then became the first state to allow mail-in voting for anyone requesting without cause in 1978, and Oregon became the first mail-in only state by 1995.
Today, five states hold entirely mail-in voting, 29 states offer the option, and 16 states allow it with an acceptable excuse. Voting via mail has been a successful method for many years. During the 2016 election, 1 in 4 votes submitted was via mail. Still, Trump continues to claim voter fraud with mail-in saying, "The ballots are out of control."
Since September, Donald Trump has discouraged people from continuing mail-in voting, which has had many political scientists and journalist refuting his claims, such as factcheck.org who writes:
We also reviewed his statements about mail-in ballots this month. We found he has repeatedly been spreading misinformation about foreign governments making up "counterfeit ballots" and Democrats sending out "unsolicited ballots" to rig the election. He also has repeatedly been spreading false information about Nevada, saying he will "win this state easily," if not for mail-in ballots — even though Trump lost Nevada in 2016"
Twitter promptly added a "fact check" alert on Trump's tweets regarding mail-in fraud due to his many unfounded claims.
The danger of losing the mailing option is most alarming during a global pandemic. Voters who specifically rely on absentee ballots are elderly, disabled, and populations vulnerable to coronavirus.
These accusations on mail-in safety are not only harmful in deterring people from voting but in undermining American's faith in a secured democracy. Homeland security has been warning that Russia is fueling the country's doubt in its democracy, specifically in its trust with the mail-in ballots, yet this division continues.
Click here to view the official Office Of Intelligence Bulletin
The bottom line is, no system is perfect. There have been a few cases of ballots being hidden or tampered with in the past. Still, there only remains only 0.00004%- 0.0009% of voting fraud of any kind overall, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Certainly nothing on the level that Trump claims and threatens as a reason not to relinquish power if not re-elected.
What’s Happening IRL?
While many opt to take advantage of the mail-in option, particularly for health concerns, some still either hit polling sites either by choice or for lack of the opportunity. Only 33 states offer early voting. With the spread of covid combined with fears in accurate and timely ballot-counting, many more people than previous elections have taken advantage of early voting. In some states, voters waited up to 8 hours to cast early votes, but despite that, earlier in October, The Guardian reported that 14 million Americans had already voted.
Whatever the turnout is this election, all Americans can agree that this race was a rough ride. Despite making history for voter suppression controversies, pandemic obstacles, post-office closings, and a president discouraging mail-in voting, we're all reminded that demonstrating our democracy no matter the platform is an essential right.
Additional Resources & Topics