Patience is a Democratic Virtue

In an unprecedented year, it’s only natural that we have an unprecedented election. It’s the first in our lifetimes to occur during a global pandemic, and one in which an unprecedented number of absentee ballots in North Dakota will be cast early or by mail. While we’re used to watching the results roll in on live TV on election night, this time it may take days — possibly even weeks — for final results. 

And that’s OK.

Accessibility and accuracy are far more important than immediate results. 

To date, the Secretary of State reports more than 205,000 absentee and mail ballots for the 2020 general election have been sent out to eligible voters – a 100% increase over the 2018 general election and a 130% increase over the 2016 general election.

But even before the pandemic, absentee voting by mail was becoming more common nationwide, but it’s more popular than ever this year because it provides a safe, secure and convenient way for many voters to cast a ballot. 

It’s a good thing that absentee voting is becoming more accessible — all eligible voters should have this option, regardless of whether there’s a pandemic. But more absentee ballots means more time spent counting. It takes longer to process absentee ballots for mundane reasons such as taking the ballots out of envelopes and applying security protocols to verify each absentee ballot, just as ballots cast in-person are also subject to verification.  Ensuring security and accuracy means more time. 

Even though Gov. Doug Burgum signed an executive order granting county auditors the ability to begin processing absentee ballots beginning on Oct. 29, it still doesn’t mean we will know results on election night. But this isn’t a reason to be disappointed: A lag in results is not only expected, but also a good sign that the process is working as it’s supposed to. Each and every vote counts. 

That’s not to say that media pundits or even the candidates themselves won’t try to preemptively declare victory. But just because someone says they are the winner doesn’t make it true. Any results reported on election night will be based disproportionately on votes cast in person, as absentee votes continue to be counted. And there’s a distinct partisan divide based on voting method: A Pew Research survey found that 17% of Trump supporters prefer to vote by mail compared to 58% of Biden supporters. Results based on in-person votes will inevitably be skewed along partisan lines. One candidate could easily win the majority of in-person votes, but could ultimately lose once all absentee ballots are counted. And remember: voters, not candidates or pundits, decide the winner.

Announcing a winner too soon is not just likely to be inaccurate, it’s dangerous. Conflicting reports of election results undermine election integrity and chip away at voters’ trust in the process. It’s important we temper our expectations and prepare for many days, possibly even weeks, before a winner is announced. While it isn’t reflected in the nonstop metabolism of our news cycle, patience is a democratic virtue. 

The goal of any democratic election is to represent the will of the people, and to achieve that goal, we must count every single vote. Our democracy is strongest when all voices are heard. Let’s prepare for an extended election process to make sure that happens. 

This column also appeared in The Forum and the Bismarck Tribune