By Robin Carnahan and Trey Grayson
Partisan politics today too frequently rewards symbolic gestures and grandstanding rather than the hard work necessary for governing. We are likely to see another example of this in early January when a handful of members of Congress reportedly plan to raise symbolic protests over the votes of the Electoral College.
Yet what our nation needs at this moment after a contentious election is to provide fewer rewards to congressional show horses and more rewards for workhorses who put a premium on solving problems, putting country above party, and bolstering Americans’ trust in our political system and our governmental institutions.
What election officials across the country accomplished in 2020 was miraculous. A record two-thirds of Americans cast ballots this year, approximately 160 million people, despite the challenges of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. While record turnout may be attributed to voters having a clear choice between two very different candidates and philosophies, most states also took admirable steps to make it safer and more efficient to vote by expanding early and absentee voting. Unfortunately, in some states, these new conveniences for voters presented administrative challenges that led to inefficiencies and delays in processing and counting the votes in several battleground states.
For instance, state lawmakers in both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin failed to heed the pleas of election officials who asked for more time to process the expected deluge of absentee ballots. Ultimately, roughly 40% of voters in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin voted by mail — up from less than 5% of voters in each state four years earlier. Yet election officials in these states were prohibited from processing these nearly 4 million ballots until Election Day itself. This resulted in a widely predicted delay in reporting the final results, a period during which some, including President Trump, cynically attempted to sow doubts about the integrity of the election.
In contrast, after Florida found itself at the center of a controversy about election administration during the 2000 presidential election, the Sunshine State adopted numerous reforms, including allowing election officials to begin processing absentee ballots 22 days prior to Election Day. This change allowed officials to undertake administrative tasks such as opening ballots and verifying voters’ signatures on absentee ballot envelopes long before Election Day, enabling votes to be counted faster on Election Day itself. That’s a common-sense reform that more states, and especially Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, should embrace before the next election.
Similarly, given the growing popularity of voting by mail, states should adopt robust measures to allow their citizens to “cure” ballots that are rejected due to unintentional voter errors on absentee ballot envelopes — such as sloppy signatures, or in states that require it, failing to get the signature of a witness. Importantly, the curing process does not change anything on voters’ ballots; it simply provides voters the opportunity to prove their eligibility to election officials, just like those voting in person.
Moreover, all states should make their certification process for election results purely an administrative matter, to remove the potential for political gamesmanship that arose, most notably this year, in Michigan.
Lastly, there were several concerning reports of long lines at polling places in 2020, especially at polling places serving non-white voters. While excitement from people eager to participate in the democratic process should be celebrated, lines that don’t move quickly can be barriers that lead to voter disenfranchisement. The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, on which Trey Grayson served, has recommended that voters wait no more than 30 minutes to cast a ballot. States and local governments should begin thinking now about ways to improve their voting processes so they can avoid long and unnecessary delays in their next elections.
Our experiences serving as the top election officials in Missouri and Kentucky, respectively, have taught us that there are always some inefficiencies that can be addressed after one election to maximize the effectiveness of the next one. Democrats and Republicans alike would do well to work together to fix these real problems — not grandstand about imaginary problems or peddle baseless conspiracy theories. The people’s faith in our democratic system depends on it.
Democrat Robin Carnahan is a former Missouri Secretary of State. Republican Trey Grayson is a former Kentucky Secretary of State. Both are members of the bipartisan National Council on Election Integrity.