How the much-litigated ballot deadlines affected the US election

By Hanna Kozlowska,
The Guardian,
December 21, 2020


Americans shattered records for voting by mail in many states in the 2020 presidential election, a phenomenon that tested existing election laws, new pandemic-related regulations, postal service capacity, voter education efforts and voters’ own resolve.

Some states had more wiggle room in accepting the mail-in votes than others, allowing ballots that were postmarked by election day to come in later, anywhere from the following day to nearly three weeks after. These grace periods became a highly contentious and politicized aspect of the election. The Trump campaign and its allies challenged them all the way up to the US supreme court as part of an overall campaign questioning the legitimacy of mail-in voting.

Grace periods for mail-in ballots also became more significant as it became clear that the vote’s results would not be even close to final on election day and that the country would indeed experience the “big blue shift” that experts predicted.

But what are the implications of letting ballots arrive late? A state-by-state look at the turnout data shows that the numbers weren’t large but were substantial enough to potentially sway a local race or a tighter election. It also shows a messy national picture, with chaotic regulations and poor record-keeping.

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The US supreme court decided in late October that Wisconsin’s grace period, in place for the April primary, would not apply in the November general election. During the state’s primary, 79,000 ballots arrived within those extra six days, making up about 6% of the total mail-in vote. Wisconsin election officials haven’t determined how many ballots in November arrived too late to be counted.

Election officials in Kentucky and Illinois were only able to guess at how many ballots arrived within their grace periods, because of inconsistent methods for counting and recording them. Texas, North Dakota, Ohio and Nevada do not track at all on the state level how many ballots arrive within their grace periods.

Generally, the longer the grace period, the larger the share of late ballots within it, but there are other factors to consider. In states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, pending litigation made it more of a challenge to inform voters of all the necessary deadlines and left voters uncertain about voting timetables. Conversely, many states did not change their mail-in voting procedures, like deadlines for requesting or submitting absentee ballots, despite the anticipated increase of mail-in voting. In Pennsylvania the deadline for requesting was just a week ahead of the election.

Kim Alexander, head of the California Voter Foundation, which supported the introduction of California’s grace period in 2014, and has conducted research on the matter, says that under normal conditions, the grace period doesn’t have to be all that long. “In my review of late ballots, most of the ballots that come in post-election come in [during the] three days after an election.”

Votebeat found evidence of that pattern in 2020 by examining data from Minnesota, since the state provided day-by-day updates for outstanding absentee ballots, showing that the vast majority of late-arriving ballots arrived the day after the election. (Full Story)