By Mike Koetting October 20, 2020
Like most of America, I can’t wait for the election to be over. I am accustomed to thinking a lot about politics, but this is crazy. It feels like every waking minute. And the cognitive dissonance is psychically exhausting. Everything tangible suggests a substantial Democratic victory. As I write FiveThirtyEight says Democrats flip the Senate 3 out of 4 times and Biden wins 5 out of 6 times, the latter I can’t help but notice, being the same odds you get in Russian roulette. The likelihood of a Biden win corresponds with my own sense of the world. I have never seen an election where so many high-ranking Republicans, including several ex-cabinet members of the sitting president, are refusing to endorse their candidate, or actually endorsing his opponent. Truth is, from my perspective, this president is so conspicuously unfit for the office and so utterly indifferent to democratic norms that the fact he’s even competitive is beyond my imagination. Surely enough people see this.
But I still can’t shed the fear, the anxiety. What if there are really enough people in the country who hate whatever I stand for so much that they would still vote for Trump? What if there are large pockets of Trump voters in swing states unwilling to tell pollsters who they are really going to vote for? What if enough voters in Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland and Philly don’t want to wade through all the obstacles the Republicans have created? It isn’t just the uncertainty of how the election will turn out. It is the continual nagging questions of how could people have such different perceptions and is there any way of having real conversations about the direction of the country.
I want it over.
Of course, it’s not at all clear when it will be over. I am hoping for enough of a blow-out that at least the presidential election is decided on November 3. The polls suggest that is a possibility, maybe a likelihood. Florida is a relatively quick counting state, particularly if there are a large number of mail-in and early voters. (In 2016 there were a total of 9.4M votes cast in Florida. Roughly 6M absentee ballots have been requested this year.) If Biden is ahead there on November 3—or in Ohio, another quick counting state—the election is likely over. North Carolina, which used to be a quick counting state, has so many legal challenges under way, it could drag out for a while.
On the other hand, if it is close in those states, it might well take a long time to sort out the results. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania don’t start counting early and mail-in votes until election day; Michigan only a few days before and its secretary of state has already said it might take until November 10 to count all the votes. Pennsylvania is particularly likely to be difficult in a close vote. Like Michigan and Wisconsin, it has a Democratic governor and a gerrymandered Republican legislature and each is trying to re-write the rules. In addition to a growing list of lawsuits, Pennsylvania is allowing anyone to vote by mail in a general election for the first time, all the state’s polling places have new machines and the rules that govern are in flux.
One of the particular concerns is that, based on analysis of elections back to the year 2000, there is strong evidence that late counted votes tend to favor Democrats. This phenomenon, known as “Blue shift” by political scientists who study elections, seems to be related to provisional ballots, which are more often Democratic. Historically, there has been no strong correlation of results by party within absentee or mail-in ballots.
Of course there is no historical basis for this year’s election where we are in the middle of a pandemic and one party has consistently demeaned votes by mail as subject to fraud, both of which might well upset trends. A September CNN poll in Pennsylvania found that 78% of Joe Biden’s supporters plan to vote early or by mail, while 68% of President Trump’s supporters want to vote in person on Election Day. Other polls have similar results.
So now there are two dynamics—a “Blue shift” that generates Democratic votes counted after the election day and oversampling of Republican votes from election-day in-person voting. Together these create the possibility of the so-called “Red mirage” where Republicans are ahead on election night, but see leads dwindle or reverse subsequently. This possibility has led Republicans to imply that only votes counted on election day are legitimate. White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany said an election is “fair” only “where we know who the president of the United States is on election night. That’s how the system is supposed to work.”
This is, of course, nonsense given circumstances. The system “is supposed to work” by counting every vote fairly and accurately. Former Senators Tom Daschle and Bill Frist, speaking on behalf of a national bipartisan commission on election integrity, clearly articulate a sentiment found in a recent poll that 75% of Americans would prefer every vote to be counted over a quick outcome.
Mike Murphy, who before Trump was a Republican political consultant, has suggested that one way of giving transparency to the voting counting is to report exit polling among people who voted early, in person or by mail. Apparently there is a considerable amount of information gathered in high quality polls about early voting by state. His argument is that releasing this data on election night would reduce the surprise element if totals started to shift. I think this is a good idea, but is unlikely to change the fundament dynamics if the election is truly close because few models can accurately predict differences that small.
Given all this, it is necessary for the media—all of it—to avoid premature claims of victory for anyone, despite any residual instincts to be the first to call a winner. I believe most of them understand the problem and are likely be cautious about announcing results too soon.
There are, however, two points of concern. One is Fox News. It has sometimes acted more as a Republican cheerleading outfit than a legitimate news network. If any of the major networks were to break ranks, it would most likely be Fox for Trump. Given the co-dependency relationship between Fox and Trump supporters, it would no doubt create chaos if they declared a Trump victory too early and subsequent counting changed the results.
The other danger spot is the Internet, which is less controlled than major media. Twitter, Facebook and Google have all announced plans to guard against premature victory claims. But, based on track record, it is hard to be sanguine about what will in fact transpire. Posts may, for instance, avoid specific declarations of victory, but may raise suspicions about the count. It is safe to assume that Trump and his acolytes will be calling into question any place where the vote totals are close and incomplete.
So, I guess, I am destined to stew in my existential questions for at least a couple more weeks, with the possibility of this going on for quite a while—even if it doesn’t get to the courts. I can only hope the media will treat the uncertainty responsibly.