The disinformation war is kicking into high gear. Candidates who perceive they are going to lose, aided by election deniers — and even some members of Congress — are falsely claiming that some states (conveniently always ones that align with their political views) are long since finished with counting or raising suspicion about counting delays.
These claims are inaccurate, and as importantly, they are potentially dangerous.
These are the facts. No state, in the history of the United States, has counted all of its ballots on “Election Night.” In fact, our Constitution and state laws have always recognized that it takes days or weeks to count all of the ballots.
State laws allow for weeks to officially certify election results, as we check and double-check the counts. This is as it should be. We have never truly “known” who won an election on election night. We only think we know, based on large margins, exit polls, and ballots counted to that point. But we only truly know who won when official results are certified — weeks later.
While some are accusing election officials in states like Arizona and Nevada of “corruption” for diligently verifying and counting legal ballots in the immediate days after an election, we should recognize that literally every state is still counting some ballots.
Many states still have mail ballots they are counting, and every state is still reviewing provisional ballots and counting military ballots. In fact, Ohio still reports over 180,000 mail and provisional ballots still to count, as of Friday morning, which is likely more than all the remaining ballots left to count in Nevada. And all of that counting is transparent, under observation by observers of both parties. Not a single state has certified official results, and the first state to do so won’t certify for several days.
We vote in many different ways as Americans. Many of us vote in person, on Election Day or during early voting, and those ballots tend to be among the first counted: they’re loaded into scanners for tabulation as they’re cast. After the polls close, we can get an initial, unofficial count of those ballots almost immediately.
But other types of voting often take longer to count. Provisional ballots need to be verified before processing. We allow for military ballots to be given extra time to arrive after Election Day. And mail and absentee ballots received on or close to Election Day need to be processed as well — all of which takes time, and cannot begin until Election Day or after.
Processing of mail ballots is crucial to election integrity because it entails validating the voter’s identity and eligibility (usually by matching their signatures or identification number), and confirming the voter hasn’t attempted to vote more than once. We want and we need this process to be undertaken diligently before counting those ballots, as every state does, and “election integrity” advocates should be celebrating this process, not attacking it.
Counting all ballots has always taken several days or weeks, and when we have narrower margins in our elections, and those elections dictate control of legislatures and Congress, this is even more likely to be the case. It’s also natural that these narrow margins heighten the stress level of those who want to know who won.
But it’s cynical, and potentially dangerous, for extremists and losing candidates to exploit our natural impatience to create chaos and uncertainty, while inciting anger. We’ve seen this in the recent past, with riots at counting sites in places like Detroit, where election officials working diligently through the night, with observers from both parties watching, were counting legally cast ballots. And we’ve seen the violence that could result, at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
We’re seeing it again now: Several candidates who must think they’re going to lose when all the legal ballots are counted are already attacking election officials and making wild, unsupported allegations. Members of Congress, elected in this same election, in states where they are still counting ballots, are on social media spreading disinformation about when states can or did finish counting. And the election deniers are out in force, spreading false claims about counting to metastasize the cancerous idea that any election where the candidate you voted for lost, must be rigged.
The election deniers have made clear this will be an ongoing strategy for them. They will seek to divide us, induce rage, and trigger violence, leveraging our own impatience and heightened fears against us. And we must resist those impulses, understanding that it takes time to count legally cast ballots, that it’s unreasonable to expect all those complex ballots to be counted in hours, and that those counting those ballots are our neighbors and fellow citizens, working diligently to ensure that every valid ballot is counted accurately.
A deliberative and accurate process is not broken. It is better for voter confidence and election integrity if we allow the process to deliver accurate, confirmed results, even if it takes a few days.
David Becker is the executive director and founder of the nonpartisan nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research. He serves as CBS News election law contributor, and formerly served as a trial attorney in the Voting Section of the U.S. Department of Justice. He is the co-author, with Major Garrett, of the book “The Big Truth: Upholding Democracy in the Age of the Big Lie.”