Three weeks after Election Day, votes are still being counted. Only 17 states have completed their tallies, and roughly 1 million ballots, out of approximately 130 million, are thought to be still out. Luckily for the nation, the outcome of the presidential race isn’t hanging on the extended count. This time. A big part of the delay is a record surge in provisional ballots, which are cast when people’s names don’t appear on the voter rolls when they come to vote, or if they have been sent a mail-in ballot but still show up at their polling place, or if they left their required identification at home.
In Ohio, more than 200,000 provisionals were cast. In Arizona, the number topped 162,000 — more than 7% of the vote. Nationwide, the number was in the millions. The provisionals didn’t just contribute to the hours-long lines on Election Day and the long waits for final results. They also are an election debacle waiting to happen.
The standards for examining provisional ballots vary dramatically from state to state and even within some states. In the next close presidential contest, lawyers will fight over which ballots to count and whether their candidates are being treated fairly.
The time to fix the system is now, before it produces such a mess, and the best way to start is by updating antiquated registration rolls. Modern systems would be less likely to generate errors like those that apparently plagued Arizona this year. They would be easier to update when people move. And they would allow poll workers to notify people when they are at the wrong voting place.
Although states and localities would continue to administer elections, some federal involvement might be necessary to protect the national interest. States are loath to spend money on things used only sporadically, so Washington could help finance computer upgrades and set minimum standards for states to meet. It does little good if some states have great systems while others don’t, particularly if the ones with problems determine the outcome of a presidential race.
At the very least, inter-operable software platforms are needed to allow states’ registration rolls to talk to each other so they know when someone has moved, or is registered to vote in more than one place. These platforms would also allow poll workers to tap into a database, rather than simply read from a printed list, to find out why a voter is not listed as registered to vote in a particular precinct.