Elections Don’t Have to Be So Chaotic and ExcruciatingRoundup
tags: elections, media, 2020 Election, Federalism
Mr. Vladeck is a professor at the University of Texas School of Law.
Joe Biden ended up winning the presidency with at least 279 electoral votes, a margin that seems comfortable now that the election is over. But for the public watching the ups and downs of the piecemeal vote count and the drip drip drip of results, the process was torturous — and offered President Trump and his allies the opportunity to conjure conspiracy theories to explain away his defeat.
It was all entirely unnecessary.
We need to fundamentally change how election returns are reported — not just for the sake of our psychological health and our sleep, but for the polity.
The random way in which returns were counted and released by states — Election Day returns versus mail-in ballots, for instance — led to wild fluctuations as results were updated. The consequence, as experts predicted, was a series of shifts in early tabulations, as candidates seemed to outperform or underperform expectations. President Trump seized on these gyrations, warning that something “strange” was going on and that a conspiracy was afoot to “steal” the election.
Of course, it was all a mirage, the unintended outcome of 50 states and the District of Columbia reporting their results in their own ways. As the University of Georgia law professor Christian Turner put it on Twitter after the election: “No one is up. No one is down. No one is leading or trailing. The votes have been cast. It’s over. All we have to do now is to ascertain something that has already happened.”
In other words, the random dissemination of results gave the appearance of something that just wasn’t true — that the returns were dynamic, not static — and that the counting of votes reflected “trends” when the result was already in. We simply needed to tally the votes to figure out what that result was.
Worse still, how the results were reported also distorted our understanding of when votes were cast. In some states, like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, rules prohibiting “pre-canvassing” — preparing early and mail-in ballots for counting — before Election Day meant that votes cast first could end up being counted last.