As we endure a Presidential vote-counting process that threatens to undermine public confidence in the results, exacerbated by a sitting President who publicly sows doubt in the legitimacy of the process, I have to question whether there isn’t a better way? While the cable news media benefit from a ratings bonanza in the minute-by-minute horse race analysis, there is nothing in our Constitution that requires it.
Our President is elected based on 51 distinct elections in the states and the District of Columbia. Each electorate awards a varying number of electoral college votes based on the results when all the votes are counted. A state doesn’t “shift” throughout an evening from one candidate to another. Whether a valid ballot is calculated first, last, or in the middle, it counts the same. The order votes are estimated and do not change the validity of the ballot or its importance concerning any other ballot cast in that election.
The order votes are reported can have a manipulative influence on the race. There is no evidence that anyone is currently manipulating it for untoward purposes, but there is no question it can be. One need only recall Jimmy Carter conceding to Ronald Reagan before the polls closed in western states to understand the impact order of reporting can have on the psychology of the electorate.
We have seen that different states count in a separate order. It is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Some count same-day ballots first; others count mailed ballots first. Some report urban areas before rural counties. Some have no order whatsoever to how they report. It affects how early returns look to the general public waiting for results they can have faith in.
Vote totals are when the polls close, all valid ballots are received, and all the votes are counted. The order ballots are counted does not change the result, and yet, as this process drags on, the media process, and this year, the President’s tweets foster the impression that the results are changing, rather than votes just being counted. There is only one result in the election, yet the incremental returns do nothing but inflame passions and provide theater.
My proposal is simple: No state releases results until all precincts are counted. No more watching states on a map in the CNN studio shift from red to blue to pink to pale blue. No more analysis of which county or uncounted precinct ballots are coming from and who it favors.
Pundits making predictions on incomplete data, sometimes calling states before the official result, is not a positive attribute of the current process. It has been an issue before (think Florida in 2000), but this year, it has proven to be potentially consequential. Trump himself is seizing on incomplete returns to fan the flames of doubt. He is tweeting about voter fraud, making baseless allegations that they are conjuring up “Biden ballots” every time a state on the Fox News map shifts away from him. This undermines public confidence in the validity of election results. The piecemeal reporting system that fosters this behavior is neither required nor desirable, except for the media who see Election Day as a cash cow. We have people, some armed, congregating around a ballot counting location in Arizona.
My proposal is not a silver bullet and will not solve all problems. People with vested interests will still challenge the validity of results, and partisan politicians will attempt to manipulate the rules to benefit their party’s interests. Still, I believe it could bring the temperature down in close elections. Will we know the results on election night? No. In some cases, we will not. Election Day would become ‘Election Week.’
But as I write this, it is two days after Election Night. We still don’t know who won this year, so immediacy is not a guaranteed attribute of the current system. In a country where a handful of states decide a Presidential election, we should be able to count the votes in those states within a day or two, and that appears to be bearing out in the current election.
Are two days too much to ask to protect the integrity of our democratic republic?