Greetings from North Carolina, where your Daily Dose author plans to vote only once this year. You may think there are 61 days until Election Day, but really the election starts tomorrow, when North Carolina mails out its first absentee ballots, and we have no earthly clue when it will end. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can stop us now, so let’s dive in.
— Daniel Malloy, Senior Editor
1. The Red Mirage
Given how President Donald Trump has denigrated mail-in voting as rife with fraud, and Republicans are generally less worried about COVID-19, Pew Research shows Democrats 39 percentage points more likely than Republicans to prefer mail over in-person voting. And because mail-in ballots must be tallied by hand and most states don’t start counting them until Election Day, that means the early results are going to look fabulous for Trump. Democratic data firm Hawkfish calls this a “red mirage.” Drawing on election modelers, Hawkfish at this point pegs that Joe Biden would win when all the votes are in, with 334 electoral votes to Trump’s 204. But if only 40 percent of mail-in ballots are counted on election night, it will look like Trump won 339 electoral votes, and his lead will evaporate over several days.
2. Breaking News
Hawkfish, funded by billionaire and failed presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, is squarely targeting the media with this framing, urging restraint from major TV networks and the Associated Press from calling races too soon. The whole election day system might need a rethink: On-screen displays showing percentages of precincts reporting won’t represent piles of mail-in ballots. Exit polls too will be way off as they are traditionally conducted in person. Instead, network data-heads could show publicly available numbers about the party affiliation of people who requested absentee ballots and how many are left uncounted.
3. Changing Their Tune
For months, Democrats’ strategy has been clear: Make sure as many people can vote by mail as easily as possible, given the pandemic. There have been ample congressional fights — including the ongoing row with the U.S. Postal Service — and pressure on states to pave the way to more widespread mail voting. Now … they’re not so sure. With liberal commentators like The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie urging Democrats to vote in person, the party message is moving more toward urging vote-by-mail only if you’re at high risk of contracting the virus.
4. Vote Twice?
Trump told reporters in North Carolina yesterday that people should vote by mail and then show up at the polls: “If it isn't tabulated, they'll be able to vote.” Voting twice is a felony, punishable by jail time, and a bunch of people stress-testing the system by attempting to do it is bound to produce some screw-ups, but states do have mechanisms in place to prevent double voting. Election Day poll workers should know if a voter has requested an absentee ballot, and those voters will have to fill out a provisional ballot if they want to vote in person instead — and invalidate any pending mail-in vote. Of course, a flood of provisional ballots will add to the lengthy vote count.
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Trump is well aware of the factors behind the red mirage. That’s why he is tweeting that we “must” know the winner on election night. As he reportedly mulls executive orders to curb mail-in voting, Republicans are already working across the country to make mail-in voting harder. After Election Day, this apparatus will quickly shift to challenging ballots on a wide scale and trying to shut down lengthy counts. Typically, about 1 percent of mail-in ballots are rejected because of errors such as the voter not signing the ballot or filling it out incorrectly. But with so many first-time mail voters, rejection rates have been far higher this year during the primaries. One case study: New York’s primaries, where rejection rates were as high as 28 percent in Brooklyn, according to preliminary data on a closely contested congressional primary. In tight races, with lawyers looking for any excuse to toss out a ballot, this issue will be magnified.
2. Street Theater
It’s not hard to imagine violence in the streets with a disputed election, and both sides likely hyping the other’s intention to steal it. A bipartisan group recently war-gamed a scenario in which Trump leverages everything from the Justice Department to the USPS in the service of winning a disputed election, and Democrats take to the courts and the streets. Possible scenarios included Trump using the military to quell riots and having to be escorted from the White House by the Secret Service after refusing to leave. Fun.
3. Hold the Phone
Let’s not forget 2016, when there was all sorts of drama about whether Trump would accept the result in the case of his supposedly inevitable loss. Instead, he won. Trump could still pull off a comeback through legitimate means, as he is within striking distance in key states … if polls are to be believed.
4. When Will We Know the Result?
It’s hard to say, because with close and uncertain results, there will be a slew of legal challenges and close monitoring of the hand count of mail ballots. Remember Florida’s dimpled chads in 2000? (Google it, kids.) Imagine six Floridas in November.
state scouting report
What about those six Floridas? Here’s your breakdown of who controls the voting apparatus in key swing states.
Republicans have the home-field advantage, with the GOP controlling the state Legislature and governor’s mansion. However, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs is the Democrats’ closer — the last defense against any last-minute election shenanigans. The Grand Canyon State is already big on mail balloting, and 88 percent of Mach primary voters this year mailed in their ballots or voted early in person. Voters also have the choice to drop ballots at secure boxes, and decisions to combine or relocate polling locations must occur a full 20 days before the election, reducing the risk of Election Day curveballs.
Nearly 1 million absentee ballots have been requested in Wisconsin, which saw fewer than 3 million people vote in the 2016 election. If something goes wrong, though, don’t expect a clear-cut answer: Wisconsin’s bipartisan election commission (three Republicans, three Democrats) has a history of gridlock. A Republican voter purge and questions about whether certain postmarked ballots could be accepted after Election Day resulted in 3-3 tie votes, kicking the issues to the courts and municipalities, respectively. The April primary was especially chaotic and indicative of this polarized state: Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, tried to reschedule the primary amid coronavirus concerns, and the Republican legislature went to the state Supreme Court and got Evers’ decision overruled. The point? In a close race, the fate of Wisconsin will likely come down to the Badger State’s seven justices, four of whom lean conservative.
Train your eyes on Broward County. Florida’s bluest county had a meltdown in 2018 — an auditor is still unable to verify the vote count — with poor tracking and thousands of missing mail-in ballots. Much of the focus is on Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who have instituted voter purges and pursued a law, currently under challenge in federal court as a poll tax, requiring ex-felons to pay all their fines and fees before they can vote. But you should watch Republican lawyer Peter Antonacci, the Broward supervisor of elections appointed by previous GOP Gov. Rick Scott to replace Democrat Brenda Snipes after the 2018 debacle. He has no previous election administration experience, and has already drawn ire for what he says was a technological mishap that accidentally sent an “address verification final notice” to 54,000 voters.
4. North Carolina
In May, the GOP-run North Carolina Legislature passed a rare bipartisan bill making it easier for people to vote by mail and adding $27 million for equipment and security upgrades. Election administration is also controlled by Democrats here, as Gov. Roy Cooper appointed the state Board of Elections to have a 3-2 Democrat edge. The board voted along party lines on Monday to institute early in-person voting on Sundays, which is popular among Black voters, in key counties. The Tar Heel State also has the longest window in the country for mail-in balloting, with the first ballots going out tomorrow, and allows mail-in ballot counting to begin weeks ahead of the election — which could help reduce delays.
Michigan saw 99 percent of votes tallied by mail or drop box in its municipal elections on May 5, its first elections conducted after the pandemic hit. The state has been especially proactive, sending postcards to 4.4 million registered voters encouraging them to apply for absentee ballots. Along with a new automatic, same-day registration law, experts say these efforts could lead to a turnout of 6 million, topping the previous record of 5 million. That would likely be good news for Biden. Both Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson are Democrats, while the Michigan Legislature is controlled by Republicans in both chambers.
Pennsylvania’s strange “absentee in-person” voting system, implemented this year for the first time, eschews typical early-voting polls for an option to visit the county elections office and submit a ballot there starting 45 days out. But while that option seems like it would make voting more accessible, it’s highly dependent on the availability set by local elections offices. Most voters will cast mail ballots or vote in person on Election Day, setting the stage for long delays. And mail votes must arrive by 8 p.m. on Election Day, which led to problems in the June primary, when tens of thousands arrived late, including nearly 15,000 in Philadelphia alone. Plus, mail ballots were still being counted a week after that June election. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has urged the state Legislature to allow processing of mail votes to begin three weeks before the general election, but Republican lawmakers so far have only proposed a plan to allow counters a three-day start. If nothing changes, experts warn the results in Pennsylvania might not be clear for weeks.
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Beto O’Rourke came the closest of any Democrat in decades to winning Texas in 2018. After a failed bid at the presidency, he’s back in El Paso working with a group to turn Texas blue. And as he tells OZY’s co-founder and CEO on The Carlos Watson Show, Texas “is for Democrats to lose, including Joe Biden.”
There are signs that Trump got a slight bounce from the Republican National Convention, and polls in some key states have been tightening from Biden’s midsummer highs. That includes Pennsylvania, a must-win state for Biden, where he’s now ahead by just 4 percentage points in Monmouth University’s high-turnout projection and 1 point if turnout is lower.
3. Ad Blocker
Facebook announced this morning that it would block all new political advertising in the week before Election Day in an effort to lower the temperature on a platform known for misinformation and pot-stirring. It also said it would flag posts from candidates who try to declare premature victory or dispute the outcome, and will direct users to official results from Reuters.
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If you want to know what happens when there’s a disputed presidential tally, check out the 1876 election that went to the House of Representatives. It resulted in the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, though to appease Southern Democrats, the GOP had to agree to effectively end Reconstruction — setting off disastrous consequences for Black citizens in the South. If this year’s race ended up in the House because neither candidate gets 270 electoral votes, Trump would likely prevail: The vote is not by total House members, where Democrats have the edge, but rather each state delegation gets one vote, and Republicans have the most House members in 26 states.
There’s been much attention on Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump ally, and whether delivery cuts are part of an effort to slow mail balloting rather than simple cost cutting. But this is hardly the first time the Postal Service has been politicized. President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, worked with Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson to resegregate the service and discriminate against Black mail carriers, while also invoking the Espionage Act to ban circulation of anti-war materials during World War I and outlawing worker strikes.