The disinformation war is gaining momentum. Candidates who believe they will lose, with the help of election deniers—and even some members of Congress—falsely claim that certain states (usually always those that align with their political views) have long since stopped counting or raise suspicions about delay in counting. .
These claims are inaccurate and, importantly, potentially dangerous.
These are the facts. No state in the history of the United States has counted all of its ballots on “election night”. In fact, our Constitution and state laws have always recognized that it takes days or weeks to count all the ballots.
State law allows several weeks to officially confirm election results as we check and recheck the tallies. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. We never really “knew” who won the election on election night. We just think we know, based on wide margins, exit polls and ballots counted to this point. But we won’t really know who won until the official results are certified – weeks later.
While some accuse election officials in states like Arizona and Nevada of “corruption” for dutifully verifying and counting legal ballots in the immediate days after the election, we should remember that literally every state is still counting some ballots.
Many states still have mail-in ballots that they count, and each state still reviews provisional ballots and counts military ballots. In fact, Ohio is still reporting over 180,000 mail-in and provisional ballots as of Friday morning, which is likely more than all the remaining ballots left to count in Nevada. And all this counting is transparent, under the supervision of observers from both sides. Neither state has verified official results, and the first state to do so will not certify for several days.
As Americans, we vote in many different ways. Many of us vote in person, on Election Day or during early voting, and those ballots are often among the first to be counted: they are loaded into scanners to be tabulated. We can get an initial, unofficial count of those ballots almost immediately after the polls close.
However, other types of voting often take longer to count. Provisional ballots must be verified before processing. We are allowing military ballots additional time to arrive after Election Day. Also, mail and absentee ballots received on or just before Election Day need to be processed – all of which take time and cannot begin until Election Day or later.
Postal ballot processing is critical to election integrity as it involves verifying the voter’s identity and eligibility (usually by matching their signatures or identification number) and confirming that the voter did not attempt to vote more than once. We want and need this process to be carefully conducted before those ballots are counted, as every state does, and “election integrity” advocates should celebrate this process, not attack it.
It’s always taken days or weeks for all the ballots to be counted, and when we have tighter margins in our elections and those elections dictate the scrutiny of legislatures and Congress, that’s even more likely. It is also natural that these close margins increase the stress level of those who want to know who won.
But it is cynical and potentially dangerous for extremists and losing candidates to exploit our natural impatience to create chaos and uncertainty while fueling anger. We’ve seen this in the recent past, with riots at counting sites in places like Detroit, where election officials worked diligently through the night and onlookers from both parties counted legally cast ballots. And we saw the violence that could result in the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Now we’re seeing it again: Several candidates who must think they’ll lose when all the legal ballots are counted are already attacking election officials and making wild, unsubstantiated accusations. Members of Congress, elected in the same election, in states where ballots are still being counted, are spreading misinformation on social media about when the states may or have finished counting. And the election deniers are out in force, spreading false count claims to metastasize the cancerous idea that any election where the candidate you voted for must have been rigged.
Election deniers have made it clear that this will be an ongoing strategy for them. They will seek to divide us, provoke anger and unleash violence, using our own impatience and heightened fear against us. And we must resist these impulses, understand that it takes time to count legally cast ballots, that it is unreasonable to expect all those complicated ballots to be counted in hours, and that those counting those ballots are our neighbors and fellow citizens who they work diligently to ensure that every valid ballot is accurately counted.
A judicious and precise process is not disturbed. It is better for voter confidence and electoral integrity to allow the process to produce accurate and confirmed results, even if it takes days.
David Becker is the executive director and founder of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research. He serves as a CBS News election law contributor and previously served as a trial attorney in the voting section of the U.S. Department of Justice. He is the co-author, with Major Garrett, of “The Big Truth: Sustaining Democracy in the Age of the Big Lie.”