In an unprecedented year, it’s only natural that we have an unprecedented election. It’s the first in most of our lifetimes to occur during a global pandemic, and one in which an unprecedented number of ballots, in Florida and nationwide, will be cast after being mailed to voters.
While we’re accustomed to watching results on election night, this time it may take days — possibly weeks — for final results.
And that’s okay. Accessibility and accuracy are far more important in a close election than immediate results.
As of Oct. 27, 5,993,575 Florida voters had requested a mail-in ballot for this election, and 3,907,285 had returned them. Spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, more people in Florida have already voted by mail than did so in the 2016 general election. The final tally could double the 2016 figure.
Unlike some other states, Florida has for years offered voters the ability to vote by mail for any reason. Vote-by-mail has proven to be a secure and convenient way to cast a ballot.
That experience hopefully will help the supervisors of elections in our 67 counties deal with this year’s flood of mail-in ballots. Florida supervisors can start counting those mail-in ballots before Election Day—as much as 22 days before, which means the count started as early as Oct. 12. Again, that should greatly smooth the process.
Pitfalls do exist for Floridians voting by mail. Unlike some other states, all Florida mail-in ballots must be received at the elections office by 7 p.m. on Election Day, except those cast by overseas voters.
Late votes are discarded. Also, instructions accompanying mail-in ballots must be followed precisely. Of particular importance is that voters properly seal and sign the outer envelope.
Florida voters have the ability to “cure” their ballots if they are initially rejected by election officials. A signature that doesn’t match that on file with elections officials is a typical reason. Voters should track their ballots through their Supervisor of Elections’ website in their county to make sure their vote is counted.
Many Florida voters will remember the long delay in deciding the state’s presidential vote in 2000. Election Day was Nov. 7, but the disputed outcome wasn’t settled until a U.S. Supreme Court decision Dec. 12.
The entire nation waited because the Florida outcome decided who would be president. Florida learned lessons that year that should pay off this year.
That said, we will almost certainly need patience again this year. Not just because an unusually high turnout is expected nationwide — a good thing for our democracy — but because some states don’t have our experience with voting by mail.
Removing ballots from envelopes and following verification procedures takes time. We may also see delays at the polls, where pandemic-related adjustments will need to be made to keep voters and poll workers safe.
This all means we may well not know results on election night. This isn’t a reason to be disappointed: Each and every vote should be counted with accuracy, and that’s a good sign that the democratic process is working as it’s supposed to.
That’s not to say that media pundits or even the candidates themselves won’t try to preemptively declare victory. But just because someone says they are the winner doesn’t make it true.
Around the country, any results reported on election night will be based disproportionately on votes cast in person, as mail-in votes continue to be counted. One candidate could easily win the majority of in-person votes but could ultimately lose once all mail-in ballots are counted.
Remember voters, not candidates or pundits, decide the winner.
It’s important we temper our expectations and prepare to have patience while a winner is announced. While it isn’t reflected in the nonstop metabolism of our news cycle, patience is a democratic virtue.
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. Democracy is strongest when all voices are heard. Let’s prepare for an extended election process to make sure that happens.