Opinion | Early absentee ballot processing could restore trust in elections
The 2024 presidential election is fast approaching and polling released earlier this year found that less than half of Americans — just 44% — are confident that the votes will be counted accurately.
The level of skepticism does not bode well for election officials seeking to avoid a repeat of the chaos of 2020, particularly because election mistrust is concentrated in one political party. While 71% of Democrats expect an accurate count, just 22% of Republicans have high confidence in our elections. For a democratic government to endure, voters — no matter where they fall on the political spectrum — must have faith that the outcomes reflect the will of the people.
Fortunately, Wisconsin lawmakers and local officials are taking steps to help restore some of that lost trust. In Madison this includes advancing bipartisan election legislation to streamline and secure the processing of absentee ballots, while in rural communities across the state, county clerks are holding town hall events to discuss election procedures and answer questions from local residents. The hope is that thoughtful reforms to the system combined with increased transparency and proactive communication will increase voters’ confidence in the state’s elections.
Perhaps the most consequential reform under consideration is a proposal to allow election workers to begin processing absentee ballots on the day before the election. Sometimes referred to as the “Monday processing bill,” this policy change would help accelerate the vote count by letting workers get a head start on work like verifying voter signatures, removing ballots from envelopes and unfolding ballots so they can be inserted into tabulation machines. The count itself would still begin on Election Day, but processing ballots in advance would mean faster results for the public.
Most other states already allow some period of absentee ballot “pre-processing.” The timing for when processing can begin ranges from a few days before the election, in places like Missouri and North Dakota, to as soon as completed ballots are returned in Arizona and Virginia. Wisconsin is one of just nine states that wait to begin processing until Election Day.
In years past, this wait had a minimal impact on the timeliness of results because most Wisconsin voters cast their ballot in person on Election Day. During the first decade of the 2000s, absentee ballots on average accounted for 10% of the vote total in November general elections. That share doubled to 20% in the subsequent 10 years and then exploded to 60% in the 2020 election. In fact, sky-high turnout in the 2020 election meant nearly 2 million absentee ballots could not be processed until Election Day, leading to delays in tabulation of results. These delays in turn set the stage for reduced confidence in the outcome among Republicans as the late arriving absentee count generally favored Joe Biden.
Enacting a pre-processing period would help mitigate a growing problem, as voting by mail continues to increase in popularity among Wisconsin residents. Nearly 30% of the votes cast in the 2022 November election were absentee — a new high for a midterm election and surpassed only by the 2020 general election.
Overall, the declining trust in elections, particularly among Republicans, is a serious problem for both Wisconsin and the nation, but it can be reversed. By adopting commonsense reforms that improve the efficiency of the system, like absentee ballot pre-processing, Wisconsin can take the necessary steps to rebuild confidence in elections for 2024 and beyond.