Despite pleas from election officials and experts, state leaders in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have so far failed to take action to avert looming delays in the counting of mail-in ballots that could decide who wins the November presidential election.
The inaction by officials in both states is shocking to many who are concerned about the potential for social unrest if there is a delay in declaring a presidential winner.
“I’m actually a little dumbfounded,” Reid Ribble, a Republican former congressman who represented Green Bay from 2011 to 2017, told Yahoo News.
In both battleground states, action by the state Legislature is needed to speed up the counting of mail-in ballots. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are among only a handful of states, including Mississippi and Alabama, that require election clerks to wait until Election Day to start opening mail ballots to count them.
In a close election, the national result is likely to hinge on the outcome in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, just like it did in 2016.
State and county elections officials have pleaded the legislatures in both states to allow clerks to start opening mail ballots as they arrive, or at least a few days before Election Day, so they can either count them or prepare them to be counted by comparing signatures on the ballot against signatures on file, a key measure for ensuring election accuracy and integrity.
Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin’s Republican senator, said in late September that the Legislature “should change the law so the ballots can be counted well before Election Day, so that Wisconsin results are known by 9, 10, 11 o’clock on Election Day, so Wisconsin isn’t part of the problem.”
Republican and Democratic county clerks in Wisconsin have made the same request, Scott McDonell, Dane County Clerk, said in an e-mail. There were bipartisan sponsors for a bill in the state senate to allow clerks to start counting mail ballots the day before Election Day, but it failed to pass this last April.
“They ought to be counting ballots as they come in now,” Ribble said. “I don’t understand why they haven’t.”
“Pennsylvania’s secretary of state wants the Legislature to allow ballot verification to begin earlier. That would be wise,” Karl Rove, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, wrote in September.
But Republican leaders in both states — who control both state legislatures — have resisted the move to give clerks more time to count mail-in ballots. In Wisconsin, Republican leaders have been completely unresponsive to this issue.
In Pennsylvania, Republicans have proposed giving clerks three days before Election Day, but that offer was paired with other measures that are poison pills to Democrats, like the elimination of drop boxes, which the state Supreme Court has already ruled against. So far, no compromise measure has yet been put forward.
If there is no resolution put forth to fix the issue in either state, this could well result in a delay in the results in the presidential race that could last well beyond Election Day.
“Our local clerks need extra time to process these ballots if we are to have any hope of reporting results within 24 hours of poll closing at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, November 3rd,” wrote a group of Democrats in the state Legislature, in a letter sent Tuesday to the Republican legislative leaders, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
“Election integrity is of utmost concern for voters in Wisconsin, and the longer the count takes, the more potential for mistrust in results to be fomented by those who mean harm to our democracy,” the letter said.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has been quiet on this issue.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf, also a Democrat, has urged the Legislature in his state to solve this problem. And talks are ongoing, a spokeswoman for state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Republican, told Yahoo News. But a Democratic source in the state with knowledge of negotiations told Yahoo News that Republicans have been uncooperative with Wolf.
There are two plausible scenarios for what happens on election night based on current polling, and only one of them involves a clear winner.
If Joe Biden wins Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Arizona, then it will signal a landslide victory for the Democrat and the race could be called that evening.
But if Trump takes those three states, it will shift attention to the same three battlegrounds that decided the 2016 election: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Trump would need to win just one of those three to get to 270 Electoral College votes. Biden would need to hold all three if he had not won any of those other swing states, assuming he also holds Nevada and Minnesota in his column.
Under that scenario, the nation will be looking at the results in these three Rust Belt states to decide the winner, and — if nothing changes in the state legislatures — they will be scrambling to count mail ballots that they weren’t allowed to open until Election Day.