James Duff Lyall: Count every vote

Editor’s note: This commentary is by James Lyall, who is the executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.

In an unprecedented year, perhaps it’s only natural that we have an unprecedented election — the first in our lifetimes to occur during a global pandemic, and one in which an astounding number of votes will be cast after being mailed to voters. While many of us are used to staying up late to learn the results on election night, this time it may take days — possibly weeks — to call the winner. 

And that’s OK. Accessibility and accuracy are far more important during a close election than immediate results. The goal of any democratic election is to represent the will of the people, and to achieve that goal, we must count every single vote. While it isn’t reflected in the nonstop metabolism of our news cycle, patience is a democratic virtue. 

Even before the pandemic, voting by mail was becoming more common nationwide, but it’s more popular than ever because it provides a safe, secure, and convenient way for many voters to cast a ballot. This year, thanks to the work of state legislators and the Secretary of State’s Office, Vermont instituted universal mail-in voting for the first time. As a result, nearly 160,000 ballots had already been cast two weeks ahead of Election Day — roughly half the number of votes cast in 2016.

It’s a good thing that vote by mail is becoming more accessible — all eligible voters should have this option, regardless of whether there’s a pandemic. But it also means more time spent counting, because these ballots take longer to process — for mundane reasons, such as removal of ballots from envelopes, as well as applying security protocols to verify each ballot, as with ballots cast in-person — and many states don’t begin processing ballots until the polls close on Election Day.

This means we may not have a winner on election night. That isn’t a reason to be disappointed: A lag in results is not only expected, it’s a good sign that the process is working as it’s supposed to. Each and every vote counts. 

We may also see delays at the polls, with high turnout expected across the nation. At least some of those delays are the result of voter suppression efforts. The ACLU has filed and won dozens of voting rights lawsuits this year — 27 victories, and counting — and we and our nationwide partners will continue to challenge undemocratic and unconstitutional barriers to voting.

It’s also reassuring to see Vermont’s Secretary of State and Attorney General have been proactive in making pandemic-related adjustments to keep voters and poll workers safe. Taking necessary safety precautions and counting every vote in Vermont and elsewhere may understandably contribute to delays in official results, but make no mistake, the expected high voter turnout is a good thing: our democracy is strongest when all voices are heard.

That’s not to say that the pundits or the candidates themselves won’t try to preemptively declare victory. But we must remember the obvious fact that just because someone says they are the winner doesn’t make it true.

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For one thing, any results reported on election night will be based disproportionately on votes cast in person, as mail-in votes continue to be counted. And with a distinct partisan divide based on voting method, one candidate could easily receive the majority of in-person votes but ultimately lose once all mail-in ballots are counted. Again, voters, not candidates or pundits, decide the winner.

Announcing a winner too soon is not just likely to be inaccurate, it’s also dangerous. Conflicting reports of election results undermine election integrity and chip away at voters’ trust in the process. We can’t let that happen.

That’s why it’s important that we temper our expectations and prepare for many days, possibly even weeks, before a winner is announced — and that we know to dismiss any premature claims of victory. In this election, and in every election, let us fulfill the promise of our democracy by making sure that every voter’s voice is heard.


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