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Delayed election results present a boon to confusion and conspiracy theories

Even as the legitimacy of American elections has been under constant assault from former President Donald Trump, a number of key races have recently seen embarrassing lags and errors in reporting results.

The New York City mayoral race is the biggest such instance to date, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the city’s Board of Elections failed to do even basic due diligence and that this resulted in a miscount of initial results last month. New York’s elections have been an object lesson in ineptitude over the past year.

Last summer, it took the state more than six weeks to determine the winners in two New York congressional primaries, and election officials rejected one out of every five mail ballots, a much higher number than usual.

Residents in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., vote in June primaries at P.S. 249.
Residents in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., vote in the city’s mayoral primary in June. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Last fall, New York officials sent incorrect mail ballots to about 100,000 voters, and had to resend the batch. That mistake in particular provided fresh material for Trump’s lies that the election was rigged, because it came at the height of the fall election, as Trump’s campaign of misinformation was reaching a fever pitch.

The parade of incompetence in New York, and a few other delays in election results, have made this something of a national story, especially the mayoral race, which used ranked-choice voting for the first time. Ranked-choice voting, or RCV, is an election reform that’s been gaining traction nationally as a way to stem partisan polarization, among other ills plaguing American democracy. It works by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and reallocating those votes as lower-polling candidates are eliminated.

But before New York election officials released bad data on the mayoral race, the Iowa caucuses in February 2020 were bungled by the state and national Democratic Party, leading to a wait of days before a winner was declared.

After the November general election, results in key states were delayed. Several Rust Belt states — Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — took three days to determine the presidential winner in their contests, largely because Republicans who controlled the state legislatures refused to allow election officials to prepare mail ballots for counting in the days leading up to the election, as Yahoo News extensively reported.

In Georgia, November’s presidential election was so close that although TV networks called the race for Joe Biden a week after Election Day, state officials held three separate recounts over the next few weeks, which confirmed Biden’s victory. But Trump concentrated much of his attention and lies on this state, even though the outcome would not have changed the presidential result anyway.

Former President Donald Trump addresses a rally on July 3 in Sarasota, Fla.
Former President Donald Trump addresses a rally in Sarasota, Fla., on July 3. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images)

The vote in Arizona was also so close that it took a week for most networks to call the race there for Biden, a result that was verified by multiple recounts that — as in Georgia — were dogged by conspiracy theories and protests. And as in Georgia, the results in Arizona would not have changed the outcome of the presidential race even if the state had gone for Trump.

But while Trump’s continued insistence that he won reelection last November is completely without merit and easily refuted, election administrators have nevertheless mishandled a number of closely watched races, making it easier for Trump to continue to spread his fabrications. Election experts have pointed to areas in the Northeast and the Deep South as having “pockets of incompetence” in election administration that are related to the states’ political history.

In the Rust Belt states, Republicans made sure that mail ballots would take days to count. That led to a small but not insignificant irony: Many Democrats were pushing for election officials to count mail ballots that arrived after Election Day.

In Pennsylvania, ballots were allowed to be counted if they arrived up to three days after the election, as long as they were postmarked by Election Day or if they had no postmark. This was part of a broader attempt to expand access to voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, which started with public health concerns but then became a partisan issue.

California, which has liberal voting rules in order to maximize participation, often takes a while to report results, but since it is not a competitive state nationally, those delays have not attracted national attention.

Vivian Morales checks a ballot in San Bernardino, Calif., before sending it in to be tallied at the County Registrar of Voters office in November last year.
Vivian Morales checks a ballot in San Bernardino, Calif., before sending it in to be tallied at the County Registrar of Voters in November of last year. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

But voting rights groups are reassessing some things as they think about how to reduce the amount of potential targets for bad actors. While it was Trump’s lies about the election that led his supporters to riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, officials who oversee elections have a special responsibility to make sure the reported results are beyond reproach, which has not been the case in a smattering of races in recent years.

Election officials, however, have been caught between demands that voting be made as easy as possible and the reality that delays in reporting results, sometimes a partial consequence of those demands, leave the door open to claims of fraud, however baseless. Trump’s attacks on elections and election officials have prompted a spike in threats against election officials, which experts worry will cause a rash of retirements and a lack of volunteers in future elections.

“When you can request a mail ballot the Saturday before a Tuesday election, no, that’s not setting the election officials up for success and the voters up for success,” said an official with a national election administrators’ group.

Election officials have been criticized in the past by leftist groups for moving the deadline for requesting a mail ballot further away from Election Day, but the election administration official said, “I know some of those conversations are happening among the more liberal advocacy groups that we can’t go after election officials for things like that.”

Then, finally, many states expanded voting by mail and early voting last year because of the pandemic — but never got the money from Congress that they requested for doing so. Much of the funding for the expansion was provided by private donors, which Republicans in some states are now passing laws to prevent.

Election workers sort vote-by-mail ballots for the presidential primary at King County Elections in Renton, Wash., in March 2020.
Election workers sort vote-by-mail ballots for the Washington state presidential primary in March 2020. (Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images)

Rick Hasen, a top election expert and the author of “Election Meltdown,” has listed four “principal dangers” to democracy. The first three are voter suppression, dirty tricks, and the kind of meritless and incendiary remarks Trump has trafficked in — such as talk of a “rigged” election.

But the fourth, to hear Hasen tell it, is just sheer incompetence, which over time dilutes respect for election outcomes even among those who are resistant to Trump-style mistruths and demagoguery. While the vast majority of U.S. elections are competently administered, this isn’t always the case in big metropolitan areas like Detroit, Philadelphia and New York.

“If New York were a Republican state, there would be protests in the streets over voter suppression, because it runs its elections so poorly,” Hasen told Yahoo News last year. “But yet it gets a pass, because it’s a Democratic state.”


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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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