Secretaries of State Stress Need for Accuracy, Patience, When 2020 Vote is Counted

September 24, 2020 by Dan McCue
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. (DNCC/Getty Images/TNS)

The top elections officials of what will undoubtedly be two of the most closely watched states in the nation on election night 2020 told attendees of a virtual forum Tuesday that their top priority will be ensuring that the vote is counted “accurately” and “effectively.”

The secretaries of state, Republican Paul Pate of Iowa, and Democrat Jocelyn Benson of Michigan, also sought to tamp down on public expectations the final outcome will be known as soon or even shortly after polls close in their states.

But in both cases, the officials pushed back at assertions it could take weeks before the United States knows who the next president will be.

Benson and Pate were brought together by Center Forward, which advocates for bipartisan solutions to the problems confronting government officials.

The wide-ranging talk, which touched on a variety of issues important to voters, was moderated by Leslie Reynolds of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Benson said when it comes to moments just before and after the polls close on Election Day, she and election officials throughout the state want to avoid two things.

“The first is having the outcome of any race being announced before the polls close, which has happened in the past and has been a problem — especially in Michigan, where we have three counties in the Central Time Zone,” Benson said.

“Secondly, we want to avoid a scenario in which an inaccurate result is announced or declared before all the ballots have been counted,” she added.

Benson said the message she’s been imparting in her state is that Election Day is really about the close of voting.

“Let’s celebrate that,” she said. “Then let’s step back and let our election workers do the job of counting all of the ballots securely, effectively and accurately. And let’s prioritize security and accuracy over speed.”

Both Benson and Pate agreed that even with a heightened emphasis on methodology and getting the count right, results, at worst, will be known in a matter of days, not weeks or months.

They also agreed that encouraging election officials to take their time will result in a greater level of confidence when the unofficial results are announced.

“Between the closing of the polls and that announcement, our job is going to be continually communicating to the public where we are in the process and how much longer they will have to wait,” Benson said.

The actual vote itself aside, both secretaries of state were asked what they are doing to combat the misinformation that’s already rife around the election.

“Our job is to try to keep the facts out there so the voters can see through all that … And that’s not an easy challenge because we get a lot of stuff thrown at us every day,” Pate said.

“Now, it’s not my job to be the communications or press secretary for any candidate, but I do want to make sure our voters have accurate information,” he continued. “For instance, there’s a lot of talk about the Post Office right now, and what I tell people is ‘Folks, let’s dial it down.’

“And that’s because I have a lot of confidence in our postal system here in Iowa. We’ve had a very good relationship with the U.S. Postal System, and we’ve worked together on multiple elections, including the most recent primary,” he said.

“I am confident, if an Iowan has chosen to vote by mail, their ballot is going to get to us,” he said.

Fielding the same question, Benson said it’s important that any misinformation that’s “out there” is “responded to quickly and just with simple facts and data.”

“I mean, that’s all we can do,” she said. “There is a continuous flow of misinformation from blogs and tweets and social media and other sources. In light of that, you have to make sure voters have accurate information.”

But Benson said there’s also a point where “you have to just block out the noise.”

“Otherwise, you run the risk of getting into the weeds and getting into arguments,” she said. “You have to simply say, ‘These are the facts’ and leave it at that. And we have to work with as many trusted messengers as we can find to circulate that information … always doing so while hoping truth is on our side.”

Pate was then asked about the impact the coronavirus is having on recruiting poll workers and setting up safe and sound new polling locations.

“It has been a challenge,” the secretary admitted. “And not only in Iowa, but in a lot of states.”

“Looking back on our experience during our primary, we had a situation where seniors are probably the greatest number of poll workers, and as you know, they were also the highest risk population for COVID-19,” he said.

“So we reached out to the community through social media and got responses from over 10,000 people who were willing to help,” Pate said. “One of the biggest successes we had in this regard was in partnering with Facebook. They put out a call for help at the top of their newsfeed and within two days, we had almost 1,500 people indicating their interest.”

That said, Pate allowed that establishing new polling locations is still a challenge.

“Schools have traditionally been a primary location for us to do our voting, but it’s different now in the COVID environment and they have their own concerns about dealing with the virus and keeping everyone safe,” he said. “Some have said simply move the election outside, but you can never predict what the weather is going to be like in Iowa.

“So we’ve begun things like implementing curbside voting, all the while hoping reports suggesting 70 to 80% of people will vote by mail, in which case we won’t have a problem if we have fewer polling places,” he said.

Of course any talk of a significant change in voting procedures — even if brought on by a global pandemic — inevitably evolves into a conversation about litigation.

Benson said she and her staff are planning “for every contingency” in that regard.

“The fact is there have been more lawsuits filed around election administration this year than ever before in our country’s history,” she said. “That’s good news for all my former students who wanted to be election law attorneys, but at the same time it means you have to be prepared for it.

“Part of our work administering democracy is also protecting it against legal challenges and ensuring that we’re complying with state and federal laws, and doing everything we can to assure the voters again of the sanctity of the process and the security of their elections,” Benson said.

That, in a nice case of symmetry, brought the conversation back to the importance of transparency on election night and the process — however long it takes.

“The thing I keep telling the media is, ‘this is not a race,’ accuracy is what this is all about,” Pate said. “I am confident that in our state, we will have some of the early, unofficial results for folks on election night. But if you think the whole thing is going to wrap up by 9:05 p.m. To that all I can say is ‘Dream on.'”

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