election reform

Sometimes Slow Election Results Are Good for Democracy

Not knowing results immediately isn’t the worst thing in the world. Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Im

During the long, agonizing evening of February 3, if you were watching cable news, you saw two interrelated things happening. The first and most obvious was that a terrible meltdown had struck the flawed volunteer-based and technologically afflicted system that Iowa Democrats had for tabulating results, which did not come in at the expected mid-evening juncture — or at all that night. The second is that a lot of highly paid, puffed-up talking heads were enraged that they were denied the raw material for their punditry. No telling how many planned and even paid-for witticisms and future catchphrases went unuttered, or how many maps of Iowa counties were tossed into digital wastebaskets.

As the venerable political scientist Norman Ornstein observes, we should beware putting too much stock in the perceived needs of those who want instant gratification on election nights. Some reforms that improve democracy make results harder to calculate and slower to harvest. Ornstein cites ranked-choice voting as one of those we are likely to see more of in the immediate future:

It allows voters to give their first, second and subsequent choices, and allocates those second choices if no candidate gets over 50%, dropping off sequentially the lowest-performing candidates until a winner can be declared.

This gives a truer picture of voter preferences and takes away the ability of independent or third-party candidates to distort the outcomes, or enable a candidate to win an election with a vote that is much less than a majority.

But it takes time to tabulate ranked-choice votes, which is why when it was deployed in Maine in 2018 Democratic primaries the winners weren’t known for eight days. That was frustrating to a lot of people with a stake in the results, including journalists. But it arguably fulfilled the prime directive of the election in better reflecting the actual preferences of Maine Democrats.

That’s relevant, actually, to what happened in Iowa and might happen in Nevada on February 22. No one is going to defend the decisions and procedures that led to the Iowa meltdown. But part of the problem was that Iowa uses the caucusing equivalent to ranked-choice voting, with alignments of caucusgoers and then realignments of those backing “nonviable” candidates. It’s tricky, takes time, and complicates reporting, particularly given the national party’s new demand that two sets of raw votes be tabulated and reported in addition to the customary delegate counts. That wasn’t much discussed on the airwaves on February 3 amid the denunciations of the incompetent Iowans with their dysfunctional reporting app and jammed phone lines. But perhaps the biggest mistake Iowa Democrats made was by not clearly explaining in advance what might delay results and then going dark as the pundits gibbered and stormed. Nevada Democrats should take note of the value of transparency.

As Ornstein also notes, there is a far more common democracy-enhancing reform that slows down election results — voting by mail:

States have different ways to count those mail ballots, but because the envelopes have to be opened manually, one by one, and then tallied, they can take a lot of time — weeks in the case of California.

And frequently, the mail ballots have voter preferences different from those of voters who go to the polls on Election Day, making the initial counts made on election eve misleading. In California, Democrats tend to vote more by mail, and several contests that had initial Republican leads were changed when the mail ballots were counted, leading many Republicans to cry foul.

That was particularly true after California changed its laws to allow mail ballots postmarked by Election Day but received by the following Friday to be considered valid. And why not? Why does the act of filling out a ballot at a polling place on election day possess more civic virtue than filling it out at home or work and placing it in the mail or dropping it off the very same day?

Yet when late mail ballots slowed down and then (as Ornstein said, predictably) reversed the results of key California congressional races in 2018, Republicans (notably House Speaker Paul Ryan and his successor as House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy) erupted with 100 percent unsubstantiated cries of “voter fraud.” Their candidates were ahead on Election Night! Then they lost! Those godless socialistic Democrats must have cooked the books, right?

Wrong. Partial results are just partial results, and there’s nothing magic about those cast or tabulated or reported on Election Night. Perhaps part of the problem is that the older set of political observers grew up on lurid tales of candidates being “counted out” by crooked election officials who waited until the wee hours to see how many votes they needed for victory and then fabricated them one way or another. That likely still happens in isolated circumstances (along with the very new threat of hacking), and in others, incompetence or inadequate investment in election technology is to blame. But we really do need to get over the idea that instant results are some sort of testament to the integrity of elections and a media birthright. Sometimes democracy takes time.

Sometimes Slow Election Results Are Good for Democracy