We come to our polling places from many backgrounds, bringing our own philosophies and motivations, individual voters united by the act we are committing. This year, we’re all part of something more — an eruption of enthusiasm that is astounding.
Records for early voting are being shattered across the country. Waits outside polling places are measured in hours, not minutes. Aerial footage of snaking lines elicits gasps and double-takes. The refusal to leave those lines by those stuck in them is inspiring.
We’d like to chalk up this burst of enthusiasm — likely to lead to the biggest vote total in the nation’s history — to more Americans recognizing that their patriotic duty in a representative democracy is to cast a ballot. But it seems more likely that the surge stems at least partly from changing voting habits due to the coronavirus pandemic and partly from the fierce partisanship that increasingly infects our political, social and cultural lives. After four tumultuous years, voters are eager to weigh in on President Donald Trump’s bid for a second term.
The urgency to vote early has an inevitable corollary — the urgency to find out who won. Please be patient. The wait for results most likely will be longer than usual. That’s not only because of the sheer number of ballots that must be counted — more than 85 million early or absentee votes were cast entering the weekend, compared to a total count of some 137 million in 2016 — but also the heavy reliance on voting by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic. It takes more time to compile and count such ballots, and most states have never handled such volume.
Only eight of the 50 states expect to have 98% or more of their unofficial results by noon on Wednesday, the day after the election. That’s OK. If vote counts and winner projections are taking a while, it could be evidence that the system is working, not that it’s malfunctioning. Premature projections could be damaging. There is no compelling need for news organizations to declare a winner on election night or for the candidates to pronounce victory unless there is certainty that the outcome has been decided. Clearly, Trump wants as few mail-in votes counted as possible, and is trying to delegitimize ballots postmarked by Election Day but received afterward — an accepted practice in 19 states this year, including New York. That’s but one source of the anxiety gnawing away at this election.
Uplifting stories of voters queuing up in darkness several hours before polling sites open are offset by disturbing accounts of voter intimidation. Reports of Trump supporters yelling at voters, standing in their way, using bullhorns to deliver charged rhetoric, and circling polling stations in honking trucks, are part of the 2020 landscape, especially in hotly contested states like Pennsylvania and Florida.
Some voters were improperly turned away from a Tennessee early-voting site because they were wearing Black Lives Matter shirts. Some voters in Detroit and other cities were falsely warned in a robocall that using mail-in ballots would expose their personal information to debt collectors. Armed militia members have gathered outside some polling sites. With the nation’s nerves as taut as piano wire, some law enforcement agencies have deployed personnel to keep simmering tensions from boiling over.
More alarming is the effort in some Republican-run states to make it harder to vote, a long-standing GOP campaign. More than 300 lawsuits have been filed in more than 40 states, many over the issue of counting mail-in ballots. The Texas Supreme Court ruled for the Republican governor of Texas in a lawsuit against his unfair decision to limit each county in the state to one drop-box for mailed ballots — whether the county is Democratic-learning Harris County, home to Houston and 4.7 million people, or rural and Republican-leaning Loving County with 169 people.
Add the possibility of foreign interference in the election, reports of computer hacks on some local systems, and the armies of attorneys marshaled by both sides to wage postelection war in court if vote counts are close, and it’s easy to see why angst runs deep. But keep in perspective reports that have cropped up of lost ballots and others mailed incorrectly. They certainly are dismaying but also correctable, and elections officials have been addressing errors as they are uncovered. You know these workers. They live in your communities. In some states, they’re career civil servants, working diligently under strains never anticipated — record voting, mountains of paper ballots, a postal service struggling with timely delivery, presidential attacks, a raging pandemic. They’ll get it right.
Our elections are our showcase to the world, our best advertisement for democracy. Let’s keep it that way. We have our differences, but we can’t let warnings about chaos and confusion become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Trust the processes that have worked before. With support from all of us, they’ll work again.
— The editorial board