Count every vote

Count every vote
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In an unprecedented year, it’s only natural that we have an unprecedented election. It’s the first in our lifetimes to occur during a global pandemic, and one in which an unprecedented number of votes nationwide will be cast by mail. While we’re used to watching the results roll in on live TV on election night, this time it may take days — possibly even weeks — to call the winner.

And that’s okay.

Accessibility and accuracy are far more important during a close election than immediate results.


This year, more than 91.6 million voters have already requested a mail-in ballot for this election. That’s more than double the number of votes cast by mail in 2016. Even before the pandemic, voting by mail was becoming more common, but it’s more popular than ever this year because it provides a safe, secure, and convenient way for many voters to cast a ballot. Several states have expanded access to vote by mail in response to the pandemic, enabling many who may have not been eligible to vote by mail in years prior to cast a mail-in ballot for the first time in this election.

When the pandemic started, 34 states had laws permitting all eligible voters to cast their ballots by mail — leaving 16 that didn’t. The ACLU sued and helped ensure that five of these 16 states — Missouri, Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, and South Carolina — expanded vote-by-mail eligibility to all voters for the general election.

It’s a good thing that vote by mail is becoming more accessible — all eligible voters should have this option, regardless of whether there’s a pandemic.

But more mail-in ballots means more time spent counting — because these ballots take longer to process, and some states don’t begin processing them until the polls close on Election Day.

This means we may not have a winner on election night.


This isn’t a reason to be disappointed: A lag in results is not only expected, it’s a good sign that the process is working as it’s supposed to. Each and every vote counts.

That’s not to say that media pundits or even the candidates themselves won’t try to preemptively declare a victory. But just because someone says they are the winner doesn’t make it true. Any projections on election night will be based disproportionately on votes cast in person, as mail-in votes will continue to be counted the following day and perhaps beyond. A candidate could easily win the majority of in-person votes but ultimately lose once all mail-in ballots are counted. And discounting mail-in ballots would disenfranchise communities of color, who are disproportionately planning to vote by mail — nationwide and in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. A nationwide survey of voters, conducted by YouGov, found that in those four states, 53 percent of Michiganders; 57 percent of Wisconsinites; 47 percent of Pennsylvanians; and 49 percent of Georgians planning to vote by mail are people of color. Nationwide, 44 percent of the electorate who plan to vote by mail are voters of color.

Announcing a winner too soon is not just likely to be inaccurate, it’s dangerous. Conflicting reports of election results undermine election integrity and chip away at voters’ trust in the process.

It’s important we temper our expectations and prepare for many days, possibly even weeks, before a winner is announced.

While it isn’t reflected in the nonstop metabolism of our news cycle, patience is a democratic virtue.

Pundits and politicians don’t decide the outcome of the election — voters do.

There are good reasons why the increase in mail-in ballots may slow election results. It takes more time to process mail-in ballots for mundane reasons such as taking the ballots out of envelopes and checking security protocols to verify each mail-in ballot, just as ballots cast in-person are also subject to verification. Ensuring security and accuracy means more time.

We may also see delays at the polls, which will have their own pandemic-related adjustments to keep voters and poll workers safe. With more than 97 million votes already cast, we’re also expecting high turnout numbers across the nation, which is a good thing: Our democracy is strongest when all voices are heard. But taking necessary safety precautions and counting every vote may mean delays in official results.

While some delays are inevitable, there are ways we can help the process run more smoothly. We can mentally prepare ourselves for a long wait in declaring the winner, so we know to dismiss any premature claims of victory. It’s important to remember that we, the people, have the power, and the more of us who vote, the more sound our democratic process.

The goal of any democratic election is to represent the will of the people — and to achieve that goal, we must count every single vote. Every voter’s voice deserves to be heard. Let’s prepare for an extended election process to make sure that happens.

Sophia Lin Lakin is deputy director of ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. She received her J.D. from Stanford Law School and is currently litigating a number of cases to ensure that all voters are able to cast ballots safely.