Nation cannot afford sloppy election count

By JIM NOWLAN

and ROBERT D. MICHAELSON

     This essay is not about who should be elected president in November, but about something arguably as important: How to avoid a sloppy election count which could throw the nation into chaos.

     Election counts have been politicized throughout American history. As we are both native to Illinois, we have beaucoup homegrown examples. Over the early history of Chicago, for example, honest elections were considered quaint. In an 1883 election in the Windy City, the second precinct of the Ninth Ward recorded 1,183 votes, from the total of 351 persons found to be living in the precinct. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and other distinguished Americans were among those who signed in as voters. Need we go on?

     In 1960, most close observers concluded that intensely loyal precinct officials of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, knowing who buttered their bread, stole the election in Illinois for John F. Kennedy. JFK “won” Illinois by 8,858 votes out of nearly five million cast statewide, on a surge of suspicious late-night returns from Daley’s most reliable precincts.

     If the electoral votes of Illinois and Texas, one of several states with close tallies, had gone for Richard Nixon, he would have won.

     To his everlasting credit, Nixon chose not to challenge the results, fearing, some say of his decision, that a drawn-out recount could throw the nation into chaos.

     The present election is already being politicized. Democrats appear to believe that dramatic increases in mail-in ballots, “required” by the handy rationale of the coronavirus, will benefit their party. President Trump apparently agrees, as he is already sowing seeds to invalidate a close election that relies heavily on such ballots.

     Love him or hate him, most would agree that Trump is an alley fighter. He will use a broken beer bottle or other sharp edges at hand to achieve his objectives. Some see this is a good characteristic in a dangerous world; others are appalled. Either way, don’t expect him to go quietly into the night, like Nixon, should the vote be razor thin against him. Nor necessarily should he; that’s why there are recount provisions in the law.

     But given the present intense polarization between political camps, it is critical that the vote count be seen by all sides as well-managed and honest. The 50 states have always been responsible for the administration of elections. There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution to allow otherwise. And mail-in ballots have been around for decades. We used to call it absentee voting, as for the military and those in nursing homes. The difference is, of course, that today some states have begun using mail-in extensively, and this year others will be as well, for the first time.

     Our fine county clerks and municipal election boards are key to clean, authoritative elections.

  • They must convince voters, and themselves, that all ballots will be received and counted after proper signature verification, and never misplaced or lost. We can’t have a repeat of miscues in the recent Wisconsin primary, where 9,000 ballots requested were apparently never sent out.
  • Be sure local postal officials are prepared for an onslaught of applications and ballots.
  • Make extra efforts to ensure voter rolls are clean and current. Officials always work on this, but it’s especially important when anticipating many mail applications.
  • Hire additional staff to handle the increased workload; federal financial aid is expected for this.
  • There will undoubtedly be efforts here and there at ballot fraud. Officials must be vigilant to limit occurrences such as manipulations of nursing home voting and “ballot harvesting,” where one person picks up and delivers (or not) ballots for multiple voters.
  • States that are planning to use mail-in ballots extensively for the first time should seek out lessons learned from associates in states who are experienced in such. With around 130 million ballots to be cast in November, perfection is not attainable. Yet, election officials must give voters confidence that they are at the top of their game, and that an honest count will be achieved, resulting ultimately in a clear winner.

     We don’t think it is hyperbole to observe that the stability of the republic could be at stake in the administration of this election. Get cracking, state and local election officials. We cannot afford a sloppy vote count.

A retired professor of American politics, Jim Nowlan has worked for three unindicted Illinois governors. Robert D. Michaelson was executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections from 1976 to 2003.

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