One of the many storylines of this past presidential election was the time states had to process absentee ballots.
Thanks to the Pennsylvania legislature not allowing election officials to prepare those ballots before 7 a.m. on Election Day, it took a number of days before America knew that President-elect Joe Biden won the state.
That didn’t happen in Missouri.
Since election officials have up to five days to prepare absentee ballots for counting, voters in Missouri got election results relatively quickly.
Still, despite being ahead of the curve compared to other states, some election officials want more time to process absentee ballots. That includes St. Louis County Democratic Elections Director Eric Fey, who said his county has wanted a longer absentee ballot timeframe well before 2020 brought a deluge of early voting.
“Just like anything else in elections, we have to make it work. So we made it work,” Fey said. “But for years, prior to this election, for us in St. Louis County we have never thought that the five days were enough to make things go as well as they could or be as comfortable as they could. We would certainly like to see something that would allow us to begin processing, preparing the absentee ballots once we receive them.”
Fey said there is variation among counties on what actually happens during the five-day processing window. For St. Louis County, teams of Republican and Democratic election workers take absentee ballots out of their envelopes. Then a separate bipartisan team places those ballots into a high-speed scanner that captures digital images.
“And then that enables us to have the ballot images ready for tabulation come election night,” Fey said. “So once 7 p.m. rolls around on election night and the polls close, we take a USB drive out of the scanner and we put it into our tabulation computer, which can then actually tabulate the results from those digital images.”
St. Louis County had by far the most absentee and mail-in votes in the state, with well over 200,000 people voting early. Whether that same volume will happen in subsequent elections isn’t clear — especially if the impending COVID-19 vaccines ease the pandemic over 2021.
Fey said, though, that some states like Illinois allow election authorities to process absentee ballots upon receipt. That, he said, would be ideal for his large county.
“I’m very happy that we have some days, unlike some states that had to do it on Election Day,” Fey said. “But we would much rather prefer to start processing them upon receipt.”
Not every Missouri county felt a crunch when processing absentee ballots.
Henry County Clerk Rick Watson said his staff had about 750 absentee ballots received through the mail to process. The county in western Missouri has about 22,000 residents. Election workers started preparing the absentee ballots for counting at 9 a.m. on Election Day and finished around 2 p.m.
“Legislation has changed to where the voter can cast (an in-person absentee ballot) and put it in the machine themselves here in the office,” Watson said. “So years ago, every single absentee ballot was in an envelope. It took more time to go through a thousand envelopes. Now, since the law has changed to where ballots can be put in the machines by the voter in the office, it eliminates all those envelopes.”
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft noted that earlier this year, there was a push to amend state law to give local election officials 10 days to process ballots. But he said the way the election actually played out may make that specific extension unnecessary.
“So I may be flip-flopping on this, because it looks like even with the increased volume — five days was enough,” Ashcroft said. “My guess is, and I want to discuss this with the clerks and the boards of elections, we probably should try to have legislation to give them another day or two. Make it seven or eight days.”
“I don’t know if that needs to be 10 days, but I think we will talk about that,” he added. “And I am fine with making sure to change that.”
Ashcroft also said that there may be a push to spell out what could specifically be done to ballots during the processing time frame.
“We’ve seen court cases in other states where they said, ‘This county was doing this and this county was doing that,’” Ashcroft said. “And although we didn’t have those problems in Missouri, we’d like to try to use what’s going on in other states to say how can we make our laws better so that we don’t run into those problems in the future.”
Fey said that an extra day or two to process absentee ballots would be helpful. He added that he expected other large counties would appreciate the change as well.
“I think, especially for the small counties, that five days is more than enough for them,” Fey said. “But with the volume we have, I know more than five days has been a must for us.”
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