Hal Bidlack

If you, like me, are a political junkie to some degree (likely, given that you are reading Colorado Politics), you have mixed emotions about our almost-done election of 2022. If you are a Democrat like me, you are very happy with the state-wide blue wave. I take particular satisfaction in the wins of my old congressional campaign colleague, our terrific governor Jared Polis. And I’m especially happy that the man who was my boss for four years, Michael Bennet, was returned to the Senate. I’m happy about the blue state House and Senate, and I’m happy about most of the congressional elections. My Republican friends will take some pleasure in those GOPers who did win their elections.

And then there are those elections we still don’t know the winner in. As I type these words on Monday the 14th, we still don’t know the outcome in Colorado District 3, where incumbent and national embarrassment U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert clings to a tiny lead that may or may not stand up, over moderate Democrat Adam Frisch. This one shouldn’t even be close, as the 27-county district is, well, pretty darn red overall. Only her repeated outrageous statements and highly questionable behaviors have made this a close call. I have my fingers crossed, but we’ll have to see what happens when the rest of the votes are counted.

Nationally, we know that the Democrats will hold the Senate (albeit with the VP’s tie-breaking vote likely being needed, depending on the Georgia runoff) and the GOP will very likely take the House, though again, there is a tiny bit of uncertainty in enough close House races that we don’t know for sure, but we will eventually.

So why the heck, in the 21st Century, does it take so darn long to count votes?

It would seem to be a pretty simple process, especially given the high-tech counting machines (which are perfectly safe and not connected to the internet, sigh…).

Well, as it turns out, there are lots of very good reasons why it takes so long. Indeed, if the results were announced very quickly, that alone could be a sign of shenanigans going on. Were you particularly impressed with “democracy in action” when the government of North Korea announced back in 2014 that Kim Jong Un had been, get this, unanimously elected as leader, with 100% of the vote, in an election where 100% of the population turned out and voted? To be fair, they did announce that a tiny handful of voters were either on a foreign tour or “working in oceans” and missed the vote. I’m guessing not too many of you, dear readers, are impressed with the speed with which that election was reported.

No, real elections take time. Heck, back before the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed back in 1933, the president didn’t take office following an election win until March 4 of the following year. For the first 145 years of our nation, presidential elections were understood to take lots of time to get things counted properly and then more time for the winner to be formally notified and then for that person to transition to the White House (or “Executive Mansion,” before 1901 when Teddy Roosevelt formally named the place the WH). Quality elections take time, yet lots of people remain frustrated that they don’t know the final results yet.

There are many logical and good reasons for the delays in modern times and, frankly, some silly ones too. An example of the latter is that the great state of Pennsylvania has a dumb state law that forbids any pre-counting of mail-in ballots before 7 a.m. on Election Day. Thus, though same-day voting from machines can be quickly reported, the opening, validating and counting of mail-in votes is much slower. Recall that back in 2020, a certain former president used the impact of this law to falsely claim fraud, in that same-day voters skew GOP while mail-in voters skew Democratic. So, the orange guy was ahead initially, until the mail-ins got counted. Not fraud, just a stupid PA law.

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In addition, with the introduction of vote-by-mail, the very idea of an Election Day is altered. When I was a kid and a bit into life, voting was done by nearly everyone on Election Day in voting booths in specific locations around town. And as a result, millions of Americans regularly were unable to vote, due to work hours, school responsibilities and other reasons. The introduction of vote-by-mail was a huge step forward in letting everyone who should be able to vote get the chance to do so.

Admittedly though, vote-by-mail complicates things a bit. If you fill out your ballot on the day before the election and mail it that day, should it count if it arrives the day after the election? Most places say yes, if the voter signed their ballot in time. Similarly, military folks and others overseas may well see their ballots delayed by forces beyond their control, and their ballots can arrive a few days “late.” Shouldn’t those folks be counted too?

For many though, it seems reasonable to ask, in this modern era, shouldn’t the actual counting go at least somewhat faster? Well, I’m reminded of what I heard the guy in charge of snowplows in Seattle, Washington say many years ago…

That fair city had been hit with a rare and remarkable dump of snow. Remarkable, that is, for the usually temperate Seattle, which found that just a few inches (an amount handled easily by, say, Chicago or New York City) had paralyzed Seattle. Seattle has a total of about 35 snowplows, while the slightly smaller Denver has more than 70. When called to explain the lousy and multi-day response to the snow, the poor guy in charge said that he wasn’t going to spend millions of dollars on equipment that might get used once every decade or so.

Similarly, though the good people of Maricopa County, Arizona are struggling to count all the votes that poured in, I’m guessing that most taxpayers there would object to spending millions more on additional vote-counting equipment that gets used for a couple of days every few years. I suspect that within a week or two of the last votes being counted, most taxpayers will be more concerned about potholes than new voting machines.

There are more than 10,000 jurisdictions that count votes in the United States. That’s a lot of places where ballots need to be checked, verified and counted. The inevitable slow roll of election results is in no way evidence of cheating. Rather, it is evidence that the counting of votes — the most sacred of public duties — takes time to get right.

So please give poll workers a break and relax. And if you live in Seattle, I hope that four inches of snow coming this winter doesn’t hurt too badly.

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.