The increase in the number of mail-in ballots could delay election results by several weeks but may also give voters more flexibility, UCLA faculty and students said.
Some states, including California, have shifted to send out mail-in ballots to all registered voters or have expanded voters’ accessibility to mail ballots as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Voters who live in states with universal mail-in voting will receive their ballots before Election Day on Nov. 3.
States that vote entirely by mail may see an influx of mail-in ballots near Election Day and voters may not know who the winner is on Election Day, said Sonni Waknin, the managing legal fellow at the UCLA Voting Rights Project.
“Even if 50% of a population or 30% of a population of voters voted by mail, that still takes time to count,” Waknin said. “You actually will not get an accurate number on Election Day.”
Since voters will gradually return their ballots weeks before the Nov. 3 election date, most voting will not happen Nov. 3, said Jeffrey Lewis, a political science professor. Events that happen closer to the election may also have a smaller impact on the election outcome than elections in the past, he added.
And even though states may receive ballots weeks before the Nov. 3 election day, some states cannot open or count the ballots until Nov. 3, said Mark Peterson, a public policy, political science and law professor.
Waknin said while ballots may take days to count, it does not mean there is anything wrong with the election.
“The election is not a fraud if you don’t know who won on Election Day,” Waknin said.
How fast the ballots are counted depends on what jurisdiction you live, Waknin said. It’s going to take longer to count the ballots and provide the results for Los Angeles County versus in a smaller county where the process would go faster, she said.
Live coverage of elections has given people the false impression that voters will know the results of the election the day of the actual election, Peterson said. However, ballots are not typically fully counted until long after election day, he added.
“We’re used to knowing these projections,” Peterson said. “We’re used to knowing results, but in fact, the actual formal counting of votes has never occurred on election night. That is an ongoing process, and they are not certified until weeks after the election.”
Although ballots may take longer to count, some students and professors say mail-in ballots increase voter accessibility and flexibility.
Nic Riani, a fourth-year public affairs student and campaign coordinator for the California Public Interest Research Group’s New Voters Project, said that giving voters more time to return their ballots could help increase voter turnout.
“The easier it is for students and all people to vote, the better,”said Riani, who is also CALPIRG’s state board chair.
The option to submit ballots early could also increase turnout among voters under 21 years old, who traditionally vote in lower numbers, Peterson said. However, these voters could still be the least reliable voting population, he added.
Voters from low-income communities who may not be able to take time off work to vote could also benefit from increased access to voting, Peterson said.
Having more voting options, such as being able to vote early and being able to vote inexpensively with the postage paid on the mail-in ballot will also make it easier for affected voters of color, such as African Americans and Latinos, to vote, Peterson added.
“The earlier you make voting possible, the more options you provide (and) the greater ways to ensure the ballots are sent in well in advance of the election are all likely to improve the probability that people’s votes are actually going to be cast and be counted,” he said.