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Election night clarity from . . . Florida? Early counting of mail-in ballots could help

An electoral worker is seen during the vote-by-mail ballots scanning process at the Miami-Dade County Election Department in Miami, Fla. on Wednesday.
An electoral worker is seen during the vote-by-mail ballots scanning process at the Miami-Dade County Election Department in Miami, Fla. on Wednesday.CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. — In a cavernous warehouse decked out in red, white, and blue, masked workers sorted the two pages of completed ballots into piles and counted the sheets.

A few feet away, more ballots flew through high-speed tabulators, rustling in the air as the machines inhaled their data.

And inside a meeting room, the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board examined a small dot inside one bubble on a ballot, trying to determine whether it was an attempted vote or just an errant mark.

This wasn’t some past election night; it was one morning this week. The flurry of activity was made possible by a pre-pandemic state law that allows absentee ballots to be tallied 22 days before Election Day, although the results cannot be released. The extra processing time is one reason why Florida — yes, that Florida — just might be able to offer the nation something that could be elusive when the polls close on Nov. 3.

“On election night, you have a chance of actually getting your results,” said Wendy Sartory Link, the Palm Beach County supervisor of elections.

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As the nation lurches toward an election complicated by potentially record-breaking turnout, a massive expansion of mail-in voting because of the pandemic, and the ever-present possibility of court decisions changing the rules at the last minute, elections experts are steeling the public for days or weeks of uncertainty about the winner as the counting drags on.

But when it comes to election night, all swing states are not created equal. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan can’t tally a single absentee ballot before Nov. 3, and it could be days or weeks before it’s clear who won them.

Florida, however, is in a different group of swing states that President Trump won in 2016, along with Arizona and North Carolina, that are allowed to start their homework early and expect to post the results from millions of mail-in ballots shortly after the polls close. That means they could actually offer some clarity amid the uncertainty, especially as Election Day totals are added as the night goes on. The majority of states allow ballot-processing ahead of time, including the largest one, California, where it started 19 days before Election Day.

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“The early counting and processing that you’re seeing may clarify the election results on election night if they clearly result in changes from how those states went last time,” said Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center. “It could, in fact, tell us who’s won.”

If it’s still too close to call in those states, that will be an indication of a long and difficult process to come in determining the presidential winner.

“I’m not counting my chickens yet,” said Larry Norden of the Brennan Center. “Florida again looks like it will be exceptionally close, and that’s often the biggest factor in whether or not you have clarity."

Florida is better-known for election disasters than for anything resembling clarity. It is a highly scrutinized state with a penchant for razor-thin margins, a place that required multiple recounts in 2018, that saw two counties hacked in 2016, and that threw the entire 2000 presidential election into an uncertain morass that had to be settled by the Supreme Court.

Palm Beach County, where the design of a “butterfly ballot” in 2000 confused some people into voting for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan instead of Democrat Al Gore, became a focal point of the drama during the long recount — something that still haunts people here.

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“Yeah, it’s got a history,” sighed Judge Leonard Hanser, the current chair of the county canvassing board, although he insisted things are different now. “I am certain that we’ll do our job, we’ll do it well, and we’ll do it unnoticed.”

There is much that could still inject uncertainty in Florida. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that voters in the state were targets of a deceptive e-mail campaign that originated in Iran. There are still partisan battles over dropbox security and the disenfranchisement of felons or the possibility of long lines on Election Day. If it’s close, all eyes will turn to provisional ballots or those that came in the mail on Nov. 3. But the process of counting ballots early — as well as examining their envelopes now for missing or mismatched signatures, which voters can fix — positions the state to deliver more results sooner, and will cut down on post-election haggling over ballots as constitutional deadlines approach.

“The more of the process you can get through before Election Day, the sooner after Election Day you’ll have a tally,” said Michael Morley, a law professor at Florida State University. “Short of some court order out of left field, I think there’s an excellent chance we could at least be fairly confident about what Florida’s result will be.”

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The contrast between Florida and Pennsylvania could not be clearer or, potentially, more consequential.

As workers in Palm Beach County were processing ballots Monday, cardboard boxes filled with more were piled taller than they were, illustrating the enormity of their task.

In Pennsylvania’s state capitol the same day, Republicans declared talks dead on a measure that would have allowed the state to do its own early ballot processing — which experts say is a huge setback for a key swing state that is anticipating a drawn-out, and potentially crucial, tallying process.

“I really do not want it to come down to Pennsylvania or Michigan," said Rick Hasan, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine. "I just don’t think they have the infrastructure to support it and I think that the president has just laid the groundwork for challenging the integrity of the election if it’s close.”

Some Trump critics believe his supporters in the Pennsylvania legislature have intentionally resisted counting ballots early as part of an effort to discredit the process undergirding an election he may lose.

“I say this publicly, loudly, and passionately, there is no political advantage to beginning the process of counting absentee ballots before Election Day,” said Tom Ridge, a Republican and former governor of Pennsylvania who has endorsed Democratic nominee Joe Biden. “When you discredit the process because of your inability to deal with an unprecedented number of absentee ballots . . . I just can’t imagine the repercussions.”

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Other states have recently taken steps to give themselves more time to process ballots. Michigan lawmakers passed a bill allowing clerks to open — but not count — ballots the day before Election Day, but Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson suggested that measure, while useful, is little more than a Band-Aid.

“That’s great, but it’s not going to completely mitigate the reality that it’s going to take more than 13 hours on Tuesday to tabulate these millions of ballots,” Benson said.

The early counting in Florida offers a window into what election night could look like, and the disputes that could arise here and elsewhere as the rest of the ballots are tallied.

Much has been made of a “red mirage” and a “blue shift” on Election Day, in which it appears Republicans are winning at first until mail-in ballots are counted.

About 1.4 million Democrats have voted by mail in Florida so far, compared to about 900,000 Republicans, according to state data. But since those ballots will be among the earliest posted results on election night, Florida could actually see a “blue mirage,” in which Democrats appear to be ahead until more Republican votes from Election Day come in.

“I think citizens have to be ready for a bit of a roller coaster as numbers shift,” said Edward B. Foley, a constitutional law professor at Ohio State University.

As of Tuesday, about 13,200 ballots had been flagged for problems, like a missing signature, according to Daniel Smith of the University of Florida. This process of fixing or “curing” ballots is well underway in Florida, although it is difficult.

Back at the warehouse, the canvassing board was looking through some of those ballots. The ones without signatures went into a yellow-labeled bin, and voters were notified they could come in to add them. Board members peered at a signature that didn’t match what they previously had on file for that voter, and a chorus of “no” and “nope” filled the room. The ballot for a voter who had voted in the wrong precinct was rejected.

Volunteer lawyers for Trump and Biden watched the proceedings like hawks. At one point, the Trump volunteer raised the possibility of looking over certain ballots, and a Biden volunteer shook her head furiously. Experts are concerned about any tactics that might slow the process down.

It’s another reason why it helps to get it going early.

“There’s no reason why the rest of the country can’t be run the same,” Judge Hanser said.

Liz Goodwin of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.