(This Aug 4 story corrects description of new postmaster general in paragraph 4.)
(Reuters) – Voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams warned Americans on Tuesday not to expect to learn the winner of the White House on Election Night Nov. 3, as problems delivering and counting an expected flood of mail-in ballots could delay the result and draw a flurry of legal challenges.
“The sheer volume of people who will be voting by mail is going to preclude the ability to count those ballots and adjudicate the outcome of the election by 11 p.m. on Election Night,” Abrams, a Democrat and former leader in Georgia’s state legislature, said in a virtual Reuters Newsmaker event.
The widespread use of mail ballots thanks to the coronavirus pandemic will likely cause significant delays in tallying results. In many states, they can arrive after Election Day, and officials must open them by hand and verify signatures. Already this year, some primary elections held mostly by mail have remained unsettled for weeks after Election Day.
Abrams, once considered a possible running mate for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, said cuts in Postal Service overtime imposed by Louis DeJoy, a large donor and ally of President Donald Trump who became the new postmaster general in June, may further exacerbate delays in service.
“And so my admonition is that we have to approach Nov. 3 with patience,” Abrams said.
Responding to concerns that the cost-cutting steps under DeJoy has led to a slowdown in mail deliveries, a Postal Service spokesman said last week the agency was taking steps to increase operational efficiency and ensure prompt and reliable service.
Abrams said states hurt by the economic collapse lack the resources to handle a deluge of mail-in ballots.
“But we also can’t ignore that the president has put in place a postmaster general who is slowing down the essential delivery of mail… We know that’s going to lead to a number of legal challenges,” Abrams said.
Abrams, 46, gained national prominence after narrowly losing her 2018 bid in Georgia to become the country’s first Black female governor. She accused Republican opponent Brian Kemp of voter suppression after he refused to resign as the state’s top elections officer while campaigning for governor.
Abrams, who later formed a voting rights group, Fair Fight, called on Trump and other Republicans to fund more than $3 billion in assistance to state election officials in the coronavirus relief bill being negotiated in the U.S. Senate.
Trump, who trails Biden in opinion polls, has raised a series of questions about the integrity of the election and last week for the first time suggested delaying the election, though he does not have the authority to do so.
Democrats and voting rights groups have pushed voting by mail as a safer option to casting ballots during the pandemic, while Trump and his allies have proclaimed without evidence that expanded voting by mail will lead to widespread fraud.
‘VOTER SUPPRESSION’ THE ISSUE
Election experts say voter fraud of any kind, including incidents related to mail-in ballots, is extremely rare.
“Voter fraud is not the issue. Voter suppression is the issue,” Abrams said.
Abrams said she and her group have worked with the Biden campaign on fighting voter suppression, both preparing for post-election chaos and working ahead of time to limit the problems.
“We can’t simply wait for the outcome. We’re working to prevent voter suppression on the front end, and we’re prepared to respond on the back end,” she said. “I’m very pleased to note that the Biden campaign is doing both.”
Abrams said the election funding would help state officials deal with an expected crush of mail-in ballots, as well as provide adequate polling sites for in-person Election Day voting to resolve some of the problems experienced in recent primaries in Wisconsin, Georgia and elsewhere.
“The United States knows how to run elections, we just have to agree to do it properly,” she said. “Our bottom line is we have to have a full toolbox of methods of voting.”
Asked whether she had been interviewed by the Biden campaign as a potential running mate, Abrams declined to comment, referring questions on the process to the campaign. But she said she feels qualified for the job and would serve if Biden asked.
Her chances at the spot have faded in recent months as other candidates emerged as more likely selections, according to conversations with Democratic officials and Biden allies. Biden is expected to announce his running mate next week, ahead of the Democratic National Convention.
Abrams said Black voters were motivated to defeat Trump in November. They became a focus in the campaign after the racial and social justice street protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white police officer.
The first dip in Black voter turnout in 20 years contributed to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s upset loss to Trump four years ago.
“Even if people don’t necessarily feel enthusiastic about the person that is Joe Biden, they are enthusiastic about the policies that are Joe Biden, and that’s what I think is going to matter in November,” Abrams said.
(Reporting by Alessandra Galloni, Joseph Ax and Colleen Jenkins; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Howard Goller)