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Josh Hawley Introduces Bill to Force Election Officials to Count Ballots Early. GOP State Legislatures Blocked This in 2020.


Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO)

Following a presidential election that took days to call, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced a new bill on Tuesday aimed at preventing future national elections from unnecessarily dragging out for several days. But Hawley’s proposed solution—having states record mail-in ballots as soon as they’re received—is not new. In fact, the only reason such procedures are not already in place is because Republican state legislatures refused requests to allow ballots to be counted early, despite explicitly being told by election officials that taking that approach would delay election results.

The primary reason for the delays in reporting election results in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin can be traced directly back to their Republican-led legislatures, each of which enacted laws barring election officials from counting mail-in ballots that had been coming in for weeks.

As a general rule, mail-in ballots take longer to process than in-person votes. The ballots are sealed an unmarked envelope which is sealed inside of a second envelope. Then there’s often a signature verification process that takes place before election officials can open envelopes, separate ballots from secrecy sleeves and sort them. This all takes place before the ballots can be fed through automated tabulators.

Kathleen Hale, the director of Auburn University’s Election Administration Initiative, explained to NPR last month that the time required to complete each individual step adds up quickly, comparing the process to writing “thank-you notes.”

“Maybe you would normally receive 10 gifts and write thank-you notes for each of the gifts. Only now you’re going to receive a thousand of them,” Hale said. “The technical steps aren’t terribly complicated — there is simply a long sequence that has to take place.”

But despite the well-documented warnings from election officials (and from President Donald Trump himself) that 2020 would see a huge influx in mail-in ballots due to the ongoing pandemic, state Republicans consistently refused to allow early tabulations to take place. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are two of the key states that didn’t allow ballots to be “pre-canvassed” before Election Day.

For example, Pennsylvania House Democrats introduced a bill in June allowing mail-in ballots to be processed three weeks ahead of Election Day. In response, Republicans approved a bill allowing pre-processing to begin three days prior to Election Day—but the bill also banned the use of drop boxes. After Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) declined the trade-off, Republicans refused to consider a House bill that would have allowed for pre-processing to begin 10 days before the election. Then for good measure, after the state couldn’t finish processing ballots on Nov. 3, Republican State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman held a Nov. 4 press conference saying the delay in reporting results was unacceptable. He called for Democratic Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to resign.

After efforts to pass pre-processing legislation was blocked by Wisconsin’s GOP-led legislature, U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R) sounded the alarm in September, urging state representatives to get ahead of the foreseeable problem. Johnson’s entreaties were ignored.

In Michigan, 23 Democratic state lawmakers signed an Oct. 13 letter to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, both Republicans, imploring the state legislature to reconvene “as soon as possible” to pass legislation that would allow absentee ballots to be processed before Nov. 3. But GOP officials, citing concerns about “fraud,” passed a law allowing for the pre-processing of ballots to begin 10 hours earlier, which experts correctly said would have a negligible impact.

Ironically, Hawley’s proposal also bans ballot harvesting and requires that ballot counting “once begun, continue until completed—no delays or pauses except in the event of imminent emergency.” Prior to the election, Republicans in California went to court to ensure they could continue ballot harvesting–which is legal in the state. Since the election, Republicans at local, state, and national levels have filed lawsuits seeking to stop ballots from being counted in several states.

Even after all of the above, the Trump campaign filed a lawsuit on Monday seeking to block Pennsylvania from certifying election results.

[image via Samuel Corum/Getty Images]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.