What we don’t know about what to expect on Election Day

Sometimes, though, everything is a mess. And sometimes that mess is big enough to wriggle the foundation of the American experiment.

Three months from Monday may very well be just such a mess. The coronavirus pandemic will push hundreds of thousands more Americans to cast ballots through the mail, straining systems in states where absentee voting is less common and, potentially, straining the mail service itself. We may not know for weeks who won particular states, making real-time coverage on election night particularly fraught. The incumbent president might use that period to draw robust suspicion on the eventual results with the aid of his supporters, endangering the validity of the process itself.

Or: not. It’s also possible that the results will be obvious not much later than they might normally be. It’s possible that absentee ballots will lead to more rejected votes and slower counting, but that this might not matter. It’s possible that President Trump’s disparagement of mail-in ballots might end up working to his benefit. It’s possible that he’s pushing on the issue now not as a lever to retain control of government but, instead, of his pride.

As we consider how messy Nov. 3 might be, it’s worth contextualizing what we already know and what we don’t.

Final vote totals will be slower in coming than normal. Before we dig into the uniqueness of 2020, given the pandemic, it’s worth revisiting our original point: Things are always messier than they look.

In nearly every election in recent years, undue attention has been paid to the results that come in from polling places. Media outlets track the percent of precincts reporting, ignoring that those totals often (depending on the state) exclude sizable vote totals from absentee ballots. Again, it usually doesn’t matter, since the absentee vote won’t shift the result. But sometimes it does, as in Florida in 2018, when then-Gov. Rick Scott’s narrow lead in the state’s Senate contest seemed wobbly, given how many absentee ballots were outstanding. Or take 1960, when John Kennedy’s apparent victory in California ended up being a narrow loss after absentee ballots favored Richard Nixon.

This year, there will almost certainly be far more absentee votes cast, making those “precincts reporting” trackers even less useful. Many news outlets, including The Washington Post, develop estimates of the number of votes expected to be cast, comparing what has been counted with those estimates. Such comparisons might be a more useful way of tracking results this year, even if it’s necessarily a slower one.

Doing so runs contrary to the mutual illusion that Americans enjoy of electoral certainty — so-and-so is up 1,403 votes with 99 percent reporting, etc. — but, again, that has always been an illusion. That’s particularly so in recent years, as the number of ballots cast outside of polling places has increased. Even before 2020, the media was struggling with how to accommodate that lag time; this year will force the issue.

Those delays might not muddy the overall presidential picture. One factor that is hard to predict is how long it will take to finalize the vote totals in every state. There are two components that play a role here: the ability of the state to count a surge in absentee ballots; and the closeness of the race.

That latter point is underappreciated. Yes, California takes a long time to count its ballots, thanks to its rules allowing ballots to be mailed on Election Day itself. Results usually aren’t finalized for about a month. But that won’t matter for our assessments of the 2020 race; we might as well give former vice president Joe Biden the state’s electoral votes right now.

This is a crucially important point. If Georgia, Iowa and Texas are the most competitive states on election night, as they are in current polling averages, we don’t need weeks to determine who will be the next president: It will be Biden. Biden leads in Florida by six points, according to RealClearPolitics’s current average, a margin healthy enough that it’s hard to see how there would be much mystery about where the absentee vote count was headed.

Normally, races are called based on a number of factors: what’s expected in various regions, what has been counted already, exit polling. Exit polling is a bit of a question mark this year, given both the number of absentee votes and the likely inability to poll at polling places because of the pandemic. But exit pollsters such as Edison Media Research have built absentee voting into their systems and had a dry run at exit polling mid-pandemic during the primaries. The media will be wary of misfires, but, again, the question mark isn’t states like New “Still Counting Primary Ballots” York. It’s states with results such as Wisconsin’s from 2016, a close race where every vote counts. If those states are ones Trump won by five points four years ago, though, calling the race might be easier than it seems.

The U.S. Postal Service’s shift to election infrastructure might be shaky. With a new Trump-allied postmaster general came changes to the USPS’s system for delivering mail. Louis DeJoy has put an emphasis on running the department in a more businesslike fashion, aiming to cut down on overtime costs at the expense of timely mail delivery.

Since that edict, the country has seen a number of reported delays in mail delivery, raising questions about how the USPS will handle its heightened role in the 2020 presidential election. It’s possible that the introduction of the new rules will have worked out any kinks over the next few months. It’s possible, too, that USPS delays will result in returned ballots missing key delivery deadlines, increasing the number of ballots that are rejected.

Trump’s aversion to mail-in voting itself has unclear political effects. There’s a sort of conventional wisdom that emerged over the past few weeks that Trump’s insistence that mail-in balloting will lead to rampant fraud — a false claim — puts his party at a disadvantage in November. After all, if in-person voting is limited by the pandemic and Republicans are wary of voting by mail, one might think that fewer Republicans would vote.

Writing for NBC News, though, David Wasserman points out that this imbalance could reward the president. After all, far more absentee ballots are thrown out than in-person ballots, given that additional verification steps are applied to mail ballots precisely to avoid the possibility of rampant fraud.

So imagine a state with 100 Republican and 100 Democratic voters. Eighty Republicans vote in-person and 20 vote by mail; the percentages for the Democrats are reversed. Tossing 10 percent of mail-in ballots means 98 Republican votes are counted (80 in-person and 18 valid mail ballots) compared with 92 Democratic votes (20 in-person and 72 valid mail ballots). A disadvantage.

Again, this matters only if the race is close in the first place. But it reinforces that the dynamics of the vote aren’t as clear-cut as they might seem.

How Trump will react is a question mark of its own. Before the 2016 election, Trump expressed little to no concern about purported fraud in mail ballots. Instead, he was heavily focused on casting doubt about in-person voting, making various unfounded claims about states like Pennsylvania.

Then he won Pennsylvania. In Michigan, facing a recount effort in a close state, his attorneys even stipulated that the election was “not tainted by fraud.”

Unhappy about the results in New Hampshire and California, though, Trump began to insist that in those states, fraud had occurred. He has done so repeatedly since, despite how obviously untrue the claims happen to be.

Why? In part, because he wants to sow uncertainty about a fairly certain process. In part, too, because of vanity: He wants people to think that maybe he won those states somehow, or at least to entertain the possibility. This is a central element of Trumpism, bolstering murkiness as a defense mechanism. But it’s also just part of who Trump is, his repeated insistence that he’s the best, even if that conflicts with the existing evidence.

During the 2016 primaries, Trump narrowly lost the Iowa caucuses to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). At first, Trump was gracious. But, after a day or two, he started claiming that Cruz had cheated and demanding a new vote. It wasn’t really about Iowa’s relatively few delegates but, instead, about both preserving his position as a “winner” and about casting Cruz as a liar and a fraud.

Trump’s focus on the perils of absentee voting may be a sincere misunderstanding of the risk of fraud. It may also be an effort to give himself a way to contest the results should he have the opportunity to do so. But it certainly gives him the same out that he has employed with the 2016 popular-vote results: He probably won more votes if you take out the millions he says were cast illegally. This is complete nonsense, but it provides him with the sort of rhetorical security blanket he enjoys.

In other words, maybe we spend weeks from Nov. 3 to Jan. 20, 2021, in a democracy-threatening fight over the extent to which absentee ballots should or shouldn’t be considered. And maybe we spend it with Trump claiming that his five-point loss in Florida was a function of illegal voting, a claim resonating only with his most fervent supporters.

Which, of course, would pose a different set of problems.

How Trump’s allies react to the result will probably depend on how murky it is. When Scott saw that his narrow election-night lead was at risk in the 2018 Senate contest in Florida, he didn’t tell his supporters to sit back and wait for votes to be counted. He instead alleged, without evidence, that there had been rampant fraud in the absentee vote. Trump jumped on the bandwagon, ridiculously insisting that the election-night results stand.

Two years later, their roles may be reversed. Scott could have to decide whether to back wild claims from Trump about the results in his state. The same process may unfold across the country in the event of an uncertain result, with Republicans who have backed Trump repeatedly being forced, once again, to decide whether doing so was worth it.

In this case, of course, there’s a complicating factor: If Trump loses in November, he’s not the same political threat that he is as president and as the leader of the party. It’s likely that Trump will maintain influence in the GOP even if he leaves office without issue, but for Republicans in Congress and in state government, there’s suddenly less urgency about joining him in his flights of fancy.

Should Trump decide to go to the mattresses even after clearly losing the presidential contest, how many Republicans, maybe worried about upcoming primary fights, would join him? What if the race is significantly closer? How many would take the role Trump did in Scott’s fight, reinforcing his wild accusations simply for the sake of preserving their own power by preserving his?

A lot of these questions and complications are unique to 2020. But it bears repeating that not all are. It is not new that there might be uncertainty about the results of the presidential election, something we saw fairly obviously in 2000. That 1960 contest, one of the closest in history, was also not settled the evening that polls closed, with Nixon conceding only the following day. That’s what Hillary Clinton did in 2016, as well.

We’re accustomed to immediacy in understanding what happened in the presidential contest, thanks, in order, to radio, TV and the Internet. Usually, that’s what we get. This year, that seems less likely, thanks to the pandemic, and also more important, thanks to Trump’s approach to the legitimacy of the vote itself. It’s worth remembering, though, that while Americans and the media should be prepared for a blizzard of uncertainty and ferocious or dangerous battling over the results, that may not be what we get.