America’s voting system is underperforming

The administration of the 2020 election wasn’t the calamity some feared.

Warnings of armed violence and voter intimidation came to nothing. Polling sites were sufficiently staffed, the system coped with the COVID-related surge in mail-in ballots and Election Day lines remained manageable even in historically underserved areas. With few exceptions, voting equipment functioned properly. In the most encouraging sign of the electorate’s resilience, turnout is expected to exceed 66% of eligible voters, the highest in more than a century.

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Nonetheless, the protracted delays in releasing final tallies in contested battlegrounds are no mere inconvenience. At a time of heightened mistrust, they risk inflaming passions needlessly. In 2020, they’ve given the losing candidate an opening to claim he didn’t lose. Systems that are unimpeachably prompt and accurate are needed to maintain public confidence.

This year, mail-in voting posed the main challenge. Because of the pandemic, the number of Americans who voted by mail nearly doubled from 2016 to almost half of all ballots cast. This greater volume raised concerns that millions of votes might go uncounted, because of higher rates of voter error and likely delivery problems in the U.S. Postal Service.

As it turned out, the share of ballots disqualified because of voter error was lower than expected. Planned staffing cuts at the USPS would have jeopardized on-time delivery of ballots, but these were abandoned thanks to congressional scrutiny.

The capacity to sort and process these votes, however, wasn’t always adequate. Vote counts were unduly prolonged in states such as Pennsylvania. The most straightforward remedy would be for states to let election officials begin counting mail-in and early votes before Election Day. In Florida, the country’s third-largest state by population, votes can be processed more than three weeks before the election. Its results were known within hours of the state’s polls closing.

Having tried the alternatives this time, more voters will want to avoid voting lines in the future. States should set clear and realistic deadlines for returning absentee ballots and provide more ballot drop boxes, putting them where they can be easily found. They should use more high-speed scanners to sort ballots. And wider adoption of electronic poll books, currently used in one-quarter of jurisdictions, would cut waiting times, speed counting and reduce the potential for fraud.

Administering U.S. elections rests with the states, but Congress can help. Lawmakers should support a multi-year program to upgrade election infrastructure rather than making one-time outlays, as they did earlier this year. Washington should create an innovation fund to encourage states to modernize their systems, and boost support for the Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency charged with certifying election-security measures whose budget has been nearly halved during the past decade.

In the past, Republicans in Congress and some statehouses resisted such steps, fearing that making it easier to vote would hurt the GOP. This year’s election suggests that fear is misplaced. Amid historic turnout, the party made gains in the House and outperformed expectations in the Senate.

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Sustaining voter enthusiasm and confidence in the voting process is critical to both parties’ future prospects — and to the vitality of American democracy.

— Bloomberg Opinion