AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
By May 17, somewhere between 1.3 and 1.4 million Pennsylvanians cast ballots in the state’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. We do not know the exact number even nearly a week later, as counties are not required to report the number of mail-in-ballots received, votes cast on election day, or provisional ballots, much less how many have been counted or remain to be counted. While Dr. Oz has held a small but steady lead of about 1,000 votes over David McCormick as votes trickle in, the exact number is constantly shifting. At one point on the afternoon of May 19 it appeared that there were 17,000 votes left to count, but then the Pennsylvania Secretary of State said that there were only 8,700 left to count. McCormick’s campaign has hired a Supreme Court litigator who oversaw a recount for a Florida Senate race. In the meantime, the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov Fetterman, has the field to himself.
All in all, it is a mess, and a strong argument for why we need to reform our election system. It is not a matter of whether fraud or negligence have taken place, or if the system is merely too convoluted for anyone to tell the difference. The point is that, like Caesar’s wife, an electoral system should be above suspicion. Instead, the odds are we may not know who the GOP nominee for Senate is for weeks, and perhaps never know who actually won.
Elections are about trust, and trust is undermined when errors occur, when there is a lack of transparency, and when vote totals change without warning. The country saw the dangers of that in 2020, and we are seeing that again. The point is not even whether or not the count is accurate. What is the value of an accurate count if millions have doubts as to whether it is in fact accurate? That is why the rebuttals to concerns about vote counts halting overnight, or changing over the course of weeks miss the point. It is enough that they make people doubt the integrity of the process to damage the legitimacy of the outcome. And the fact is, the more complex any system is, the less transparent it will appear. Which only further underscores the importance of prioritizing simplicity in our electoral systems.
When votes are cast in person, on election day, the machines tally votes as they happen. Any error is caught immediately. Poll workers do not have to store ballots anywhere or sort them. At the end of the day the machines print out totals, they are reported, and can be checked if needed. Not so with absentee balloting. Mailed ballots can arrive not just on election day but any day before, and often, depending on the state, for several days after. Rather than keeping track of votes for a single day, election workers must monitor them for weeks. They cannot even isolate them in secure locations, as more ballots will arrive daily. This is a challenge for even the most honest and hardest working poll workers, who will be blamed, in many cases unfairly, for anything that appears improper.
Elections are messy. Mistakes happen. Sometimes they are massive. In Lancaster County, a printer error resulted in a situation in which nearly two-thirds of the 21,000 mailed-in ballots cannot be scanned and will need to be tallied by hand. There is no reason to believe anything other than an honest error was behind the situation. Given the messy nature of the geography of this primary, it is unclear who, if anyone, would have anything to gain from purposely causing this error. In a lopsided election, the 14,000 votes would not even matter. With a race likely to be decided by under 1000, lawyers for both Senate campaigns are likely to descend on the county to dissect every single ballot.
The point is not to suggest the error in Lancaster casts doubt on the outcome of the election or to condemn either McCormick or Oz from taking advantage of it. Rather, it is to highlight that complexity in any system inherently creates more areas where things can go wrong. While there are legitimate concerns about the security of vote by mail, even in a system where there was no fraud and no prospect of fraud, increasing the number of places where ballots can be cast, misplaced, damaged, or otherwise lost increases the likelihood they will be, and that campaigns will try and utilize random chance and honest mistakes to their advantage. A major reason for restricting mail-in voting to those who had medical or age-related reasons was to limit the number of mailed ballots that needed to be processed. Democrats, and many Republicans, in advocating expanding it, saw only the convenience it could provide and not the drawbacks.
It is important to call out fraud, but it does a disservice to the debate to frame arguments against universal mail-in voting over absurd lengths of time, solely in terms of deliberate, malicious fraud. Even without any malice or actual fraud, such a system will inevitably produce outcomes like that in the Pennsylvania Senate primary, and worse, create incentives for lawyers and campaigns to manipulate the count in malicious ways after the votes have been cast in an effort to gain an advantage. Simplicity is about limiting the number of things that can go wrong. Things will go wrong anyway. We need a very good reason to create more. What is happening in Pennsylvania is a further reminder that we have never had one.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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