Americans are voting today in state-level elections across the country, but next year’s presidential race looms large on the horizon. While much of the coverage of the 2024 election will focus on candidates, how that election is administered is just as consequential.
Here we lay out four under-the-radar election policy issues that have the potential to take center stage in 2024: election official turnover, longer waits for unofficial results, hand counting of ballots, and certification challenges. While 2020 showed that we can’t always predict what will surface during a presidential election year, each of these topics are key to making sure that the 2024 election is well-executed and that the results are trusted by a wide swath of Americans, no matter the result.
Election official turnover
Elections are chronically underfunded, highly complex logistical operations: experience matters. Election officials have long worked under the pressure of intense media scrutiny, tight deadlines, and inadequate funding. But in recent years, the job of an election official has gotten increasingly demanding. Burnout, compounded by persistent threats and harassment, is spurring an uptick in retirements and resignations that threaten the preservation of institutional knowledge among those responsible for upholding American democracy.
New talent can heighten the risk of errors, glitches, and mistakes that—although they are unlikely to impact the legitimacy of results—still undermine voter confidence.
Thankfully, our election procedures are intended to be resilient to administrative error, and election officials are working diligently to fill institutional knowledge gaps. BPC recently launched the Election Workforce Advisory Council which brings together election officials and workforce experts to improve and enhance election official recruitment, retention, and training.
Longer waits for unofficial results
False election narratives are most likely to spread in the hours or days between when polls close and when results are made clear. Therefore, it is imperative that ballots be tabulated quickly and accurately once voting has ended. Forty states allow election officials to process absentee ballots before Election Day, which expedites overall ballot tabulation and enables election officials to release unofficial results sooner. But a handful of key battleground states, including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, don’t allow preprocessing, needlessly delaying those election results.
In 2020 and 2022, BPC warned that, with elevated levels of absentee voting and razor-thin margins, results might take longer than expected. We noted that the concept of “election night” may be obsolete—instead, “we must prepare for election week.” The public should prepare for the same in 2024.
Learn more: Ballot Pre-processing Policies Explained
Hand counting of ballots
Ballot tabulators – the equipment that processes ballots to count votes – are the linchpin of accurate and timely election results. Yet, since 2020, at least 13 states and numerous local jurisdictions have attempted to replace them with hand counts. These efforts are based on the false premise that hand-counting ballots is the gold standard of accurate results. In reality, banning machine tabulation would undermine election integrity and sow distrust. If the prospect of waiting a few extra days for election results seemed daunting, with hand counts it could take weeks—or, more likely, months—to know who won.
Expect to see continued efforts to hand count elections as we approach November 2024. And if any jurisdiction adopts the practice, expect long waits for even unofficial results.
Results are not and have never been final on election night. After initial results are released, election offices canvass, certify, and audit the results. The certification of election results was long a ceremonial and uncontroversial part of the election process, but attempts to disrupt, delay, and cast doubt on orderly certification have picked up steam since 2020. Public conflicts that play out over days or weeks fuel doubt among voters who might otherwise have no reason to question, or even consider, how results are certified.
The certification challenges that have occurred in recent years in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Arizona have been resolved, typically through a court order. Yet those intent on challenging certification have refined their tactics since 2020, so expect to see renewed vigor and lengthy litigation in certification challenges in 2024.
As we look ahead to the 2024 election, our focus must extend beyond the partisan divides that dominate the headlines. It is critical to anticipate and address the problems that could challenge election administrators and threaten trust in democracy. Thankfully, there are solutions to these problems within reach. BPC is hard at work getting these solutions into place, collaborating with the election officials who know best how to improve election policy.
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