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© Bonnie Cash State officials warn of delayed election results from influx of mail-in ballots

A bipartisan group of secretaries of state warned Tuesday that it may take longer to finalize the vote count in the upcoming U.S. elections, but emphasized steps were being taken to ensure the safety and security of the voting process.

The officials in particular emphasized their commitment to weeding out voter intimidation at the polls and to shoring up cybersecurity, particularly as early voting across the nation surged to record levels over the past week.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) noted that almost 1 million Michigan residents had already cast absentee votes ahead of Election Day, around a third of the 2.9 million residents who requested mail-in ballots.

Benson emphasized that due to state law not allowing the process of counting mail-in ballots to begin until the morning of Election Day on Nov. 3, the swing state is expecting a delay of several days before the election results are finalized.

“We estimate that our results, or in other words, the full 3 million or however many ballots that will be voted early ultimately, it will take us probably through Friday at the latest to tabulate them all methodically, securely,” Benson said during a press call hosted by the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) on Tuesday.

Benson told reporters that the state made this calculation based on the state’s August primaries, when 1.6 million absentee ballots were cast, noting that it took the state 40 hours to securely count those ballots.

“If we have twice as many, let’s say 3.2 million ballots voted by mail absentee or early this year in November, we anticipate it could take 80 hours to tabulate them all, leading us to Friday,” Benson said, noting that that time frame could be expanded if more mail-in ballots than expected are received, or if there were any challenges to election results.

“The bottom line is that we are making data-driven decisions in our state to prepare for November, we’re ready, and I am confident that the results of our elections, when they are announced, will be a reflection of the will of the people,” she said.

Concerns over the timing of a vote count have been amplified this year due to the expected influx of mail-in ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in particular in swing states including Michigan and Pennsylvania where officials cannot begin the process of counting mail-in ballots until Nov. 3.

Benson’s comments on a longer election process due to the expected influx of absentee ballots were echoed by her colleagues in other states, with several already seeing a massive turnout at the polls.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) noted that the state reached 8 million registered voters a few weeks ago, the highest number of registered voters in the state’s history, and emphasized to reporters that the state will be transparent about mail-in ballot counting delays.

“When we report those election night results, those unofficial results on election night, we are also going to report the number of outstanding absentee ballots so you all can be informed as you start to report what is happening around the country and in the state of Ohio,” LaRose said.

In Washington, which has been majority vote-by-mail since 2011, Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R) noted that results of the August primary elections were delayed by days due to an influx of ballots.

“We did not have our meaningful results where about 90 percent of our ballots were cast until the following Monday of election week,” Wyman said. “You may have slower results, that is normal, it is part of the process, and it’s making sure that we are accurately counting our ballots.”

New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver (D) said over 350,000 New Mexico residents had applied for an absentee ballot this year, around a third of the state’s registered voters, and that 71,000 voters had already cast their ballots in-person over the past week.

“Our county clerks can begin counting those ballots as early as 10 days before Election Day, and as late as five days before Election Day, so we are giving our clerks very ample lead time to get those absentee numbers counted so that we have the vast majority of them posted and available to the public on election night,” Oliver said. “That’s a particular challenge as we are all aware of nationwide this year, having those results available.”

Concerns around the election process have been amplified during what is expected to be a highly divisive election. President Trump has repeatedly urged his supporters to “watch” the polls to ensure voter fraud does not occur, with officials and experts accusing Trump of inciting voter intimidation.

The state officials on Tuesday emphasized to reporters that while registered poll watchers were part of the normal process of elections, voter intimidation would not be tolerated.

Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin (R) noted that his office was working with the FBI to address concerns over intimidation at polling locations. State law bans any protesters from coming within 600 feet of a polling location.

LaRose noted that his office had recently sent a memo to Ohio state sheriffs outlining “what the law is” and emphasizing that “voters may not be impeded, poll workers may not be impeded in doing their work or from exercising their fundamental right to be a voter on Election Day.”

Another ongoing concern has been ensuring the security of the voting process following Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Foreign adversaries have begun targeting the 2020 elections, with a senior official at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence assessing in August that Russia, Iran, and China were actively interfering.

The state officials expressed confidence about the strides forward made since 2016, but emphasized that election officials should not let down their guard.

“All government entities are under attack at all times,” Ardoin said. “I feel confident in where we are, not overconfident, and I’ve stressed during this election cycle, while we may be talking a whole lot about voter fraud, voter intimidation and suppression, absentee ballots, mail-in ballots, whatever it is, cybersecurity is still a top priority and could be the main issue that we face.”

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