This haphazard process causes problems in at least three respects:
First, it opens the door for charges that something is amiss, as it might have struck some with the returns from Pennsylvania, where the count first had one candidate up by thousands of votes, only to swing entirely in the other direction. This can leave the impression that sinister forces were at work, when it was just a function of the partisan makeup of the counties whose votes were being counted, or the type of vote — mail-ins, for example, which are disproportionately Democratic — being reported.
Second, for state legislatures, this “mirage” phenomenon could encourage mischief. For instance, the prohibition on early processing of mail votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin has been laid to Republican lawmakers, who control the legislatures of those three states. Those decisions appear to have produced exactly this effect — to have the first reported results look much better for Republican candidates than the overall tally, thus influencing the election narrative. There’s value in shaping the headlines even if the bottom line remains unchanged.
Finally, the uniquely American approach to counting and releasing election returns — with each state running its election its way — can lead to days of unnecessary and often misleading televised drama, with negative consequences for our mental (and physical) health. How many hours were wasted in the past few days refreshing web pages with election results or sitting in front of the television? How much productivity was lost? How much avoidable stress was created? How much social turmoil could have been avoided?
It doesn’t have to be this way. In Canada, for instance, a nonpartisan federal agency administers elections using a uniform set of rules and procedures across the country. Brazil has a similar system. Indeed, David Carroll, director of the Carter Center’s democracy program, told The Washington Post recently that the decentralized nature of the U.S. electoral system for choosing a national leader is unique. Even so, there is no question that Congress, under the Constitution’s Elections Clause, could impose uniform national rules at least for federal elections.