By Richard Hansen
WITH less than sixty days to go until the United States presidential election, some states have already begun early and mail in voting.
With the coronavirus pandemic still wreaking havoc in part of the US, we are seeing an explosion in absentee voting with many voters not feeling safe or able to cast their ballots in person.
Polls suggest that far more Democrats than Republicans plan to vote by mail, and as a result a nightmare scenario haunts Democratic strategists and election officials.
On election night in 2018, as the results were tallied in the state of Florida, the Republicans running for governor and the Senate held razor thin leads in races which were too close to call.
Over the next few days, their Democratic opponents began eating into their leads as mail-in votes were counted.
President Trump sounded the alarm demanding that the races were immediately called for Republicans Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis falsely tweeting “that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”
Neither Democrat went on to win their race but President Trump has never let go of his baseless accusation that Democrats use mail-in voting to “steal” elections and has continued to peddle this lie even at the Republican National Convention.
The question now must be asked, will this scenario happen again?
You can bet your bottom dollar that if it does, and with Trump’s name on the ballot this time, he will be the first to cry foul of a “rigged election” and claim victory at the first possible opportunity.
It is entirely possible, and even probable that on election night itself Trump will have build up early leads in several crucial swing states because Republican voters are more likely to vote in person.
Yet, in the days afterwards as mail-in ballots that tilt heavily Democratic, these states could flip to former Vice President Joe Biden.
President Trump has already dangled the possibility of contesting such a scenario in a tweet in July “Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months, or even years later!”
The president, along with his allies in the Republican party and the conservative leaning news media could easily sow distrust in the election by arguing that mail-in ballots which shift states away from his column are “rigged” and that the Democrats are attempting to “steal the election”.
It would certainly resonate with his base, who have already been vocal in their opposition to spending extra time counting mail-in ballots. It could create an extremely volatile situation with violence not out of the question.
Anthony Spano, a Trump supporter in Old Forge, PA speaking to the New York Times said the president was “so right” when he warned of potential fraud by Democrats.
“If they think there’s unrest now, just wait to see if they try to steal this election,” he said. “Personally, I think people that are nonviolent, we’re going to get very violent.”
Many Democrats, who are calling this the “nightmare scenario” say that this is a situation worth preparing for.
Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state, reminds us that this sort of thing has happened before “We’ve certainly seen candidates trying to get out in front of a narrative and declare victory when all the votes have not been counted,”
Ms Benson, as well as other prominent Democrats in battleground states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania are trying to change election laws so that absentee ballots can be counted before Election Day.
Currently, mail-in votes from many large Democratic cities such as Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee are not reported until in-person ballots are counted- sometimes days later. This was not a problem in the past, but with the pandemic shifting how significant numbers of people cast their ballot, in 2020 this certainly has the potential to upset the result.
A Democratic data group backed by ex-presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg said this that it was likely that Mr. Trump would appear to have won on election night by a landslide, a scenario it called “a red mirage.”
The US uses the electoral college system to determine the outcome of their presidential elections.
Each state has a certain number of electoral college votes- the larger the population of the state the larger their electoral college votes. California, for example, has 55 electoral college votes while Wyoming only has three.
These are determined by the number of each states congresspeople and senators added together. The electoral college votes are allocated on a “winner takes all” basis, so a candidate could theoretically win California by 0.01 per cent but still be awarded all 55 electoral college votes.
Election night on November 3 could show something like 408 Electoral Votes for Trump and 130 for Biden while a week later on November 10 this could have shifted to 334-204 in favour of Biden.
“We are sounding an alarm and saying that this is a very real possibility, that the data is going to show on election night an incredible victory for Donald Trump,” Josh Mendelsohn, the chief executive of the group, Hawkfish, told “Axios on HBO.”
The company’s survey of registered voters concluded that twice as many planned to cast a ballot by mail as ever before, and that they were mostly Biden supporters.
A spokesperson for the Trump campaign, Thea McDonald, called Democrats’ concerns about the president prematurely declaring victory “an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory,” and added “President Trump and his campaign are fighting for a free, fair, transparent election in which every valid ballot counts — once.”
The president has raged against mail voting all year, tweeting in May that “there is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent.”
In 2020, we need to be more prepared for an “Election Week” rather than just an Election night.
It is important to remember that unlike many countries who count every ballot before declaring a result, television networks in the US are used to making “calls” on states before the full results are tallied.
This is done by using a combination of exit poll data, historical averages and a percentage of the vote already counted. It is why each television network can for example call the state of California for the Democrats the moment polls close in that state rather than wait until all votes are counted- as it is such an historically Democratic state.
This has given the American public a false sense of the amount of time it takes to count all the votes as they usually (with a couple of notable exceptions) have a winner and a loser by Midnight EST on election night.
It could in this case be prudent to adopt a counting strategy more akin to the UK model where results are not declared by TV networks until they are formally announced by the returning officer in each constituency- or in this case state.
While this may take a little longer to finalise, the Electoral College does not actually meet to formally decide cast their votes until December 14 and Congress do not even certify the winners until January 6 – many weeks after election day itself. There is no constitutional need to have a winner on election night.
With the understandable surge in absentee voting, it may not make for the best prime time television spectacle, but it could be the best way to ensure each vote is counted, and to allow the greatest level of transparency.
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