fb-pixel Skip to main content

States should count early ballots before Election Day

Democracy depends on how much citizens can trust the electoral process; long counts in swing states, even if credible and by design, could undermine that.

The variation in when states began counting their ballots has contributed to undue confusion and anxiety among Americans.
The variation in when states began counting their ballots has contributed to undue confusion and anxiety among Americans.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Joe Biden has now received more votes than any presidential candidate in US history and holds a lead of roughly 4 million votes over President Donald Trump. But the question of whether he would win the race for the White House never hinged on the will of the majority of voters. Thanks to the anachronistic Electoral College, Americans knew this election would come down to the verdict of voters in just a few swing states.

It’s the beauty of federalism, and a recipe for a more robust democracy, that the 50 states all run their own electoral processes — and that in keeping with Louis Brandeis’s conception of states as laboratories for democracy, an innovation like universal mail-in voting can be tried out in a state like Oregon before being adopted by other states. But in presidential elections that ultimately hinge on a few states’ results, all states agreeing to count ballots at the same time could go a long way toward shoring up public trust in the electoral process.


This election year was, of course, extraordinary. Early and mail-in voting far exceeded that of any election past; by Tuesday, more than 100 million Americans had already voted. States deserve credit for nimbly adapting to the pandemic with a range of approaches, from expanding no-excuse absentee voting (as happened in Massachusetts and New Hampshire), to mailing ballots to all registered voters (as happened in Nevada and Vermont), to extending the number of days of early voting (as Texas and Kentucky did).

It’s also unprecedented to have a sitting president and candidate use the bully pulpit and social media to spread disinformation and lies about voter fraud in a blatant attempt to undermine the public’s trust in state counts.

By all credible accounts, votes were being tallied diligently and fairly in all the swing states that did not report dispositive results on Election Day. And the fact that there was a “red mirage” in certain states like Pennsylvania on election night (i.e., early results from in-person voting hinting at a lead for Trump) was an artifact of when those states began counting mail-in ballots. In this election, mail-in ballots skewed heavily blue, especially in counties home to major urban centers like Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee; many city-dwelling voters had concerns about the risk of in-person voting in a pandemic.


But the variation in when states began counting their ballots has contributed to undue confusion and anxiety among Americans, making some of them more vulnerable to believing the president’s false conspiracy theories that the election is being stolen by fraudulent counting and that ballots are being mysteriously unearthed to favor Joe Biden. In reality, of course, the states’ electoral processes this year were designed to report results this way; according to the rules of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, mail-in ballots could not be counted until Election Day or just before. States like Colorado, Ohio, and Florida, by contrast, began counting their mail-in ballots earlier, giving them the ability to report fuller results on the night of the election.

Now that states have been through the wild ride of 2020, it would be worth taking steps that could better protect elections from unfounded suspicion, protests, and lawsuits. Allowing mail-in ballots to be counted earlier is a clear way to offer more consistency in states’ reporting of results to the American public. It would help quash doubts about the integrity of the process — and would spare many of us from being glued for days to electoral maps and a trickle of county results.


It would not, of course, solve the more fundamental problem: The fateful choice of who occupies the White House is determined not by the majority of Americans but by the archaic Electoral College, which has the effect of disenfranchising voters when candidates like Hillary Clinton win millions more votes than their opponents but fail to get 270 electoral votes. It also excludes millions of American citizens in Puerto Rico and other US territories.

Whether by constitutional amendment or through states’ adoption of the National Popular Vote proposal, the Electoral College ought to be eliminated in favor of a system that allows for majority rule. Because the founders dreamt it once served a purpose doesn’t mean that it now serves democracy. But that’s an idealistic goal for 2020’s political realities, no matter who wins the White House.

Americans have come to accept as normal that the fate of the nation, as steered by the person in the Oval Office, will be determined by a process that involves fixating on just a few states. Until and unless this structural barrier to majority rule changes, states can at least do their part to keep Americans’ faith.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.