Former President Donald Trump and his allies have seized on the lengthy processing and counting of votes in Pennsylvania during the 2020 election to fuel his false claims that fraud cost him the battleground state.

Election officials worry that a repeat of the midterm elections could be on the horizon in November, with high-stakes gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races.

And it’s not just Pennsylvania. Michigan and Wisconsin are other notable states that allow no-excuse mail-in ballots, but don’t give local elections authorities time to process them before Election Day.

Voters’ failure to do this work ahead of time means many mail-in ballots may not be counted on Election Day, delaying results in tight races and leaving a gaping hole for misinformation and lies to flood the public space.

“That time between the polls closing on election night and the last vote count is really being used by people who want to undermine the credibility of the process,” said Al Schmitt, Philadelphia’s 2020 election commissioner who is now president and At-Gen. director of the Good Governance Group of the Committee of Seventy.

The first step in processing mail-in ballots, or pre-polling, is a routine but important administrative task that allows election workers to verify voter signatures and addresses or identify problems that voters can resolve themselves. Once the ballots are recognized as valid, they are removed from their envelopes—another time-consuming task—so they are ready to be counted on Election Day.

Not in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, exceptions to the vote count. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 38 other states, including Republican-controlled states such as Florida, Georgia and Texas, allow mail-in ballots to be processed before Election Day. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, is even bragging about getting results on election night — a scathing criticism he made during a recent stop in Pennsylvania.

For the three most important states on the battlefield, such objections are groundless. A 2020 effort to give local election workers more time before Election Day to process mail-in ballots has died in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Instead, Republicans in those states sought to tighten restrictions on mail-in voting — provisions vetoed by Democratic governors.

“Ballot counting should be about safety, not speed,” Wisconsin state Rep. Janelle Brandtien, a Republican, said earlier this year when lawmakers were considering legislation on the issue. “Why would we want to give bad actors a chance to see the ballots before Election Day?”

Republicans helped kill a bipartisan bill that would have given Wisconsin more time to process mail-in ballots amid claims it would give partisans more time to cheat or leak early vote counts — another unsubstantiated conspiracy theory being promoted as a way to explain Trump’s loss .

As in Pennsylvania, election workers in Michigan and Wisconsin must wait until Election Day to begin pre-collecting mail-in ballots.

Currently, the number of ballot requests in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania is below the 2020 level, relieving the burden on local elections.

Still, Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Board of Elections, said it’s “total guesswork” when the count will end in Wisconsin’s most populous county. She hopes the case will be over by 11pm on election night. This year, she said, there isn’t expected to be a late drop ballot frenzy like in 2020 because the courts have banned the use of ballot drop boxes.

In Michigan, in 2020, lawmakers agreed to give clerks in more populous cities and towns 10 hours the day before Election Day to process mail-in ballots. Clerks unsuccessfully sought similar provision for this year.

Republicans, who control the Pennsylvania Legislature, have refused to allow early processing of mail-in ballots unless they come with provisions that Democrats don’t want, such as banning drop-off boxes and expanding voter ID requirements.

County election officials say they’re grateful the state approved $45 million in grants from the Elections Administration to help them purchase ballot processing equipment and pay for worker benefits. But they still face the task of processing more than 1 million mail-in ballots, just in time for the November election. Some don’t expect to finish processing their mailed ballots until the day after the election — even after working all night.

Pennsylvania’s top House Republican lawmaker on election legislation said allowing counties to process ballots before Election Day should be paired with “election integrity” measures.

“Once the ballot is opened, you remove the outer envelope from the ballot, you remove any opportunity to question anything in this election system,” said Republican state Rep. Seth Grove. “So you have to guard his front end much better.”

Those in favor of earlier processing say observers can watch pre-campaign mailed-in ballots, increasing transparency, and point out that it is allowed in many other states.

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“If people want to watch the process,” said Lee Soltysiak, chief operating officer of Montgomery County in Pennsylvania, “they’re more likely to do it at 3 p.m. than at 3 a.m.”

All three states refused to support Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election and are still subject to conspiracy theories about Trump’s defeat.

Among them, poll workers tampered with ballots in the middle of the night in Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee and other Democratic-leaning cities in states Trump lost in the battleground state, despite the lack of evidence. for almost two years after the election.

The controversy has been followed by death threats against election officials, as well as a flurry of lawsuits aimed at keeping Trump in office. In the middle of the counting, two men, inspired by Trump’s campaign lies and armed with guns, drove from Virginia to the ballot counting site in Philadelphia.

Trump continues to spread conspiracy theories, repeating at a rally in Wilkes-Barre this month that the 2020 Pennsylvania vote was “rigged.”

Fearing a repeat of the false claims from two years ago, Democrats in the Pennsylvania Legislature continued to push Republicans to bring the bill to a vote before the campaign trail — without any poison pills.

“This bill is not going to pass,” said Democratic Rep. Scott Conklin. “Why doesn’t it start? Because when it starts, it gets rid of the conspiracy theories. It removes the fact that what they are saying is nonsense and untruth.’

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