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Election officials warn it could take weeks to determine results in November

Bill Ogans of Seattle wears a Seattle Supersonics hat and face mask as he prepares to drop off ballots for the August 4 Washington state primary at King County Elections in Renton, Washington on August 3, 2020.

Jason Redmond | AFP | Getty Images

While President Donald Trump continues to drive unsubstantiated claims that increased vote-by-mail efforts this year will lead to voter fraud, election officials warn of another, far likelier threat: delayed results. 

What’s typically regarded as election night could drag on for a week or longer as the coronavirus pandemic changes voting habits and as a crisis at the U.S. Postal Service threatens to disrupt mail-in ballot delivery, experts warn.

“We’re all going to need to take a deep breath and be patient this year because, you know, there’s a substantial chance we are not going to know on election night what the results are, possibly for the presidency, but maybe for many other races that are important to people, and that’s okay,” Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub told CNN on Monday. 

“If it takes a little bit longer to count all the votes accurately, that’s what we need to do in order to ensure everyone’s vote counts,” she said.

Opinions are mixed among state election officials on whether they expect results to be delayed in November. Because U.S. elections are run at the local or state level there is considerable variation on voting protocol and tabulation systems. 

Still, many election officials say they’ve learned lessons from conducting primary elections in recent months. Because of these experiences, some states, such as Alabama, Delaware, Iowa, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia, told CNBC they’re confident that they can report results in a timely fashion.

Other states, such as Arkansas, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Vermont, concede it’s harder to know for sure this year and it depends on a range of factors.

“We have all gotten used to knowing the results of the election at 10 p.m. on Election Night, sometimes the morning after. It’s going to be different this year,” Steve Simon, Minnesota secretary of state, said in a press release. “It might take a few days, or up to a week until ballots are all in and counted.”

The rise of absentee voting

One of those factors is the shift to mail-in voting. In an effort to avoid the spread of the coronavirus via in-person polling, election officials have expanded vote-by-mail access in dozens of states. 

This shift was met with resistance from the White House, as Trump began to push a narrative that mail-in voting is dangerous and poses security threats, even as a recent analysis cast the risk of voter fraud at 0.0025%. Trump himself votes by mail and has requested mail-in ballots for himself and first lady Melania Trump ahead of Florida’s primary, the Palm Beach Post reported.

The fear of the potential of voter fraud is “overblown,” said Capri Cafaro, executive in residence at the American University School of Public Affairs and former Democratic leader of the Ohio State Senate. 

While there’s scant evidence of mail-in voting leading to fraud, expanded absentee voting is relatively new to many states and could play a big part in delayed results. 

“Because there are so many variables, both within the system of voting and throughout the country, because each state is kind of approaching things differently, I think that we certainly should anticipate that this is not going to be what we would see as a traditional or regular election night or election cycle,” Cafaro told CNBC.

Delayed results could be particularly significant in a swing state such as Florida, which typically sees tight margins of victory, said Susan MacManus, political analyst and former political science professor at the University of South Florida. 

“If it’s close, we have recount rules that require that the ballots be sent back through machines and so forth,” MacManus said. “So delays would probably be related to Florida’s size and its closeness and the magnitude of those votes that cannot be counted on election night by law.”

Pressure on USPS

A recent analysis found that nearly 76% of Americans are able to receive a ballot by mail this year, the highest in U.S. history.

But in recent weeks, reports of a slowdown in delivery of personal mail are causing alarm. After New York’s June 23 presidential primary, a federal judge declared thousands of mail-in ballots invalid, partly because the U.S. Postal Service was unable to deliver them on time. 

The delays cast a huge spotlight on the U.S. Postal Service, whose operations have been under intense scrutiny for months. 

Since at least May, lawmakers and state election officials have publicly worried about the possibility that the USPS, burdened by financial problems, may not be able to handle a large volume of mail-in ballots this November.

Earlier this month, the USPS announced a major reorganization attempt that included eliminating overtime, an action that received prompt criticism from those who feared it would compound potential delays. 

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who was appointed in May and is a major donor to Trump’s campaign, contradicted statements made by the federal election commissioner and by multiple secretaries of state who have expressed concern over potential delays. 

“Despite any assertions to the contrary, we are not slowing down election mail or any other mail,” DeJoy said last week. “Instead, we continue to employ a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling of all election mail.”

But, on Friday, it was revealed by The Washington Post that the USPS has sent letters to 46 states and Washington, D.C., warning that some mail-in ballots for the November election might not arrive in time to be counted. 

Beyond overtime, the USPS is taking about 500 letter-sorting machines out of commission, a figure that makes up almost 15% of the machines, Motherboard reported. With the cutback, workers expect mail handling to slow down considerably. 

“It is hard to tell the ability to be able to count the ballots on time, simply because there seems to be some questions surrounding what’s happening with the Post Office now,” Cafaro said. “I think that certainly it’s up to the Trump administration and Congress to ensure that the U.S. Postal Service is up to the task.”

Republican and Democratic lawmakers are at odds over additional funding to ensure elections run smoothly in the fall. The first coronavirus stimulus bill, which became law in March, included $400 million for the Election Assistance Commission to provide states with grants “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, for the 2020 Federal election cycle.” 

In May, House Democrats proposed an additional $3.6 billion to go toward helping state and local officials carry out the election. But the Republican-led Senate proposal included no such funding. Trump has also been resistant to increased election aid, saying in an interview with Fox on Thursday that he would oppose the Democrats’ proposal.

House Democrats also put together a $25 billion proposal earmarked for the U.S. Postal Service, but Trump vowed to oppose that as well.

Precedent for delayed results

All signs indicate that delays are likely to mar the November election. 

“If you just look at news coverage of election 2020, it’s evident that the news media and election officials are trying to prepare the public for the fact that we may not know on election night, or even a few weeks after that, who won,” MacManus said. “A lot of it will be the process itself. Accounting and verification or what we call certification processes.”

Some states have higher stakes than others. “In some states, not only do you have the presidential [election], you have some key Senate races that could make a difference in whether Democrats control both houses of Congress or not,” MacManus said. “So I don’t know of anyone that’s really expecting to know on election night unless it’s just a really blowout election.”

When reached for comment, Trump 2020 general counsel Matthew Morgan said in a statement, “The Trump campaign is fighting to ensure every valid ballot across America counts. The Lawyers for Trump coalition, which grows daily, will rally support for President Trump as they lend their time and legal expertise to protect the integrity of November’s election.”

A spokesperson for former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNBC, but Biden has tweeted support for the USPS before.

“The U.S. Postal Service is an essential pillar of American life. We simply cannot let Donald Trump destroy it,” Biden said in May.

The most notable instance of delayed election results in recent history happened two decades ago when the U.S. Supreme Court had to intervene to determine who would be the next president. 

The competition was between George W. Bush and Al Gore, who contested the Florida election results because the number of votes standing between him and Bush was marginal and, according to law, could be subjected to a recount. 

Some Florida counties were unable to complete the recount by a designated deadline, but the secretary of state’s office still declared Bush the winner. The Florida Supreme Court then intervened, mandating that the entire state conduct a manual recount. Bush escalated the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking for the decision to be reversed. 

Since federal law required that the presidency be determined by Dec. 12, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Bush. With a ruling of 5-4, the manual recount was ordered halted, and Bush won the presidency.

The deadline to identify the president, called the safe harbor provision, is still in place today. “That deadline is set at six days before the Electoral College votes, which this year makes the deadline December 8,” said Dan Lee, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida introduced a bill last week to extend the safe harbor period to Jan. 1 to “give states the flexibility needed in a pandemic to help ensure each and every legal vote cast is counted.”

It’s unclear how either Trump or Biden would react if election results were delayed. 

But should the election be close and should results not be fully known on election night as expected, “there will be litigation,” MacManus said. “Both sides have geared up on lawyers to the max.”

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