• Nearly half of the mail-in and absentee ballots in Alaska had yet to be counted a week after
    Election Day. There has to be a better way to cast and count votes.
  • A national election standard allowing any registered voter to request a mail-in ballot — and requiring those mail-in votes to be counted as soon election offices receive it — would increase voter turnout and ensure that results are available within days of the election.
  • Samantha Davenport is a freelance writer and lifelong Alaskan reporting on the state’s arts, history, food and inhabitants.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A week after Election Day, nearly half of the mail-in and absentee ballots in my home state of Alaska had yet to be counted.

As a solidly red state with only three electoral votes, how Alaskans vote normally isn’t consequential in presidential elections. Oftentimes residents are still waiting in line to cast their ballot when the race is called by national outlets. As a result, rural states like mine are left out of national election dialogue altogether. 

However, more than a week after this Election Day, the country had its eyes on five states that were still counting ballots. But one of those states, Alaska, wasn’t counting yet at all.

The weeklong wait that the Alaska Division of Elections imposed for early and mail-in ballots was unnecessary. Part of the delay is because all absentee ballots are currently being checked against Election Day precinct books to confirm no Alaskans voted twice. Obviously, this slows the count down. But, we are the only state that waits seven days before counting absentee, mail-in, and early ballots that weren’t tabulated on Election Day, which accounted for nearly half of Alaska’s votes. 

We need a better way to cast and count votes. A national election standard allowing Americans across the country to request a mail-in ballot, and requiring those mail-in votes to be counted as soon election offices receive it, would increase voter turnout, decrease election costs, and ensure that results are available within days of the election — not weeks. 

Under the current system, American citizens in states like mine have a diminished sense of purchase on the democratic process, and shrug it off as another instance where civic participation doesn’t matter.

Why we need a national voting standard

Establishing a national standard would cut down on the confusing election policies that Alaska and other states have encountered in 2020. States like Florida and Oklahoma count mail-in ballots as soon as they are received by local officials. This practice gets ahead of the laborious in-person vote count that commences on Election Day, and allows officials to contact voters if there are issues with their ballots, assuring that more voices are heard.

In one of the nation’s most rural states, it can take weeks to send a ballot; it seems unimaginable that a national standard for mail-in voting could succeed here. However, it was standard for years. 

Voting by mail isn’t a new concept to Alaskans. Six rural communities in the right-leaning Kenai Peninsula Borough have voted by mail for more than 20 years, where it has proved to be more efficient and effective for those constituents. In a state more than twice the size of Texas, Alaskans are spread out over 600,000 square miles. Many communities are only accessible by plane or boat. Transportation in Alaska, especially in wintertime, has its own challenges — and contrary to popular belief, Alaska does not deliver ballots by dog sled. 

Voting by mail might prove a superior option in the most rural parts of Alaska. Small, Indigenous communities in the state have a limited number of people who can volunteer at polling locations. In the Alaska primary, half a dozen communities woke up on Election Day with no traditional polling place to cast their ballot because of a shortage of poll workers, a situation exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. Enacting a national standard would mitigate logistical difficulties relating to in-person polling locations.

This year, over 100 million Americans — or 60% of all votes cast — cast their vote either by mail or by in-person early voting. That figure is more than double the number of votes cast early or by mail in 2016. States like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin kept us biting our nails this election — and not just because of the razor-thin margins. State law prohibited local election officials from counting absentee and mail-in ballots until all polls were closed. More than two-thirds of states already allow officials to begin counting ballots before Election Day, with the stipulation that results cannot be released until the polls close. 

The pandemic proved states that wanted to expand mail-in voting could. Western states like Colorado and Oregon have already fine-tuned how they conduct their elections by mail. This year, California followed suit and mailed ballots to every registered voter. Wisconsin and Arizona significantly expanded mail-in voting and saw record turnout. And red states that didn’t allow absentee ballots unless there was a pre-approved reason unrelated to COVID-19 still showed up in record-breaking numbers. While their Republican-run state senate tried to suppress at-risk voters during a respiratory pandemic, Texans broke a nearly-30-year-old turnout record.

After a contested election like this, when Alaskans waited on election results for more than a week after Election Day, now is the time to consider a national standard for mail-in voting. A national standard would cut down on confusion and disenfranchisement in a way that doesn’t give a shallow partisan advantage. 

Samantha Davenport is a freelance writer and lifelong Alaskan reporting on the state’s arts, history, food and inhabitants. She is also the managing editor of The Spenardian, an award-winning news blog and magazine for the neighborhood of Spenard. Samantha’s work has appeared in Vice, Modern Farmer and Anchorage Daily News.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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