The United States has begun to move away from the concept of an election day and, instead, has started to conduct elections as a more extensive process, at least in terms of time.
Undoubtedly, the pandemic accelerated the transition in some states. While there was already a small number of them accepting ballots through the mail, several more states implemented, or more aggressively promoted, that method of voting in the 2020 cycle. This was a good thing, as it allowed for more flexibility for people to be able to participate in the elections. That flexibility was not just a function of the convenience of being able to send a ballot from your own mailbox, but also because it necessarily expanded the window in which those ballots could be submitted.
When combined with the states that already allowed for some form of early, absentee, or mail-in voting prior to the pandemic, these additional states added momentum to the evolution of how elections are held in this country. In some states, and under certain conditions, some people were voting weeks before “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November” as described in federal law.
What is often overlooked, or at least seldom mentioned, is that there are also mechanisms and processes in state law that create the possibility that the selection of a federal office holder will not be completed until weeks after that day in November. That is what is happening now in the state of Georgia in two Senate runoff races. Even though Joe Biden won the state of Georgia, and that his victory has been confirmed through multiple recounts and signature audits in a select counties, the Democratic candidates for the Senate received fewer votes than their Republican opponents. However, they were able to keep them from earning a majority of the votes and, under Georgia law, this meant another election had to be held between the top two vote getters in each race to determine the winner.
So even though the day of the general election was Nov. 3, the actual window for the submission of ballots was much wider. Some voters in Alabama were voting in-person as early as Sept. 9. That is one day short of eight weeks before election day. Voters in Georgia are still deciding who their senators will be. That decision will be made today, nine weeks after election day, even if the final tallies are not immediately known.
Altogether, that is a 17-week period in which voters somewhere in the United States were expressing their views on who should represent them in Washington, D.C. It is worth repeating that the size of the window varied greatly from state-to-state, that Georgia is the only state still holding a vote for federal candidates based on the 2020 cycle, and that, even there, there was a short time when no ballots were being accepted for their senatorial runoff elections. But, functionally speaking, “election day” has taken place over the course of four months.
There is a debate about the fairness and practicality of such a broad timeframe. There should be. It is always beneficial to reexamine voting procedures. They can always be improved, and elections made more accessible and democratic. The system we have now, with 50 states each having their own rules and timing when it comes to holding elections, is not tidy. But it should not be presumed that lack of tidiness is evidence of fraud or even an invitation for it. In fact, the move toward wider timeframes and additional methods of voting are favorable to the democratic process.
Jason Nichols is District 2 Democratic Party chair, an instructor of political science at Northeastern State University, and former mayor of Tahlequah.