From The Archives -- Will We Know Who Won On Election Night?

[ Posted Tuesday, June 4th, 2024 – 17:04 UTC ]

For the rest of the week, I am going to be running columns from four years ago -- from June of 2020. I figured it'd be a good thing to take a look back and remember where we all were then.

But I have to admit, when I found this first one, I had to feel more than a little prophetic (especially the penultimate paragraph). Pretty much everything I warned about in this column actually did come to pass, and parts of it were even worse than my fervid imagination could come up with.

This was written after Pennsylvania had held their primary and everyone was still waiting to hear the results of it, due to an extra-large quantity of mail-in votes.


Originally published June 8, 2020

I know we all have plenty to worry about these days, so I apologize in advance for adding another possible item to the list. But we could be heading for a very worrisome situation indeed, because contrary to how Americans have experienced past presidential elections (well... other than in the year 2000...), we may not actually know who won on the night of the election. There are a combination of factors which have set up this rather unique situation, and it may not even come to pass if a few of these variables change by November. But the possibility now exists that we won't know for days -- or even weeks -- who won the Electoral College and thus the presidency. Which, obviously, could lead to chaos, especially considering what Donald Trump will be saying and tweeting in the meantime.

What is especially worrisome is what is happening now in Pennsylvania. The state held its primary election last Tuesday, but as of this writing several of the races have not been called yet, due to the overwhelming increase in the number of voters casting their ballots by mail.

From a Politico article posted Friday:

Three days have passed since Election Day, and races for auditor general, state senate and state representative are still up in the air in Pennsylvania.

Election officials haven't finished counting the vote because they are grappling with an influx of more than 1.4 million mail ballots after the state implemented no-excuse absentee voting for the first time ever amid a pandemic, widespread protests and riots. In Philadelphia, the biggest city in the state, only about 14,000 of nearly 160,000 mail and absentee ballots had been tallied as of Friday afternoon.

. . .

Gov. Tom Wolf's administration said it did not have the total number of uncounted mail ballots throughout the state. But Wanda Murren, spokeswoman for the Department of State, said 49 of the state's 67 counties had finished tallying their mail ballots.

From the Philadelphia Inquirer, also on Friday:

Philadelphia election officials stopped counting mail ballots Thursday and may not start again for days, warning that the outcomes of a number of races in Tuesday's primary won't be known for several weeks and that the city may miss a legal deadline for certifying the results.

The delay is due to the large number of mail ballots voters requested in the last week before the deadline, Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio said. He said the commissioners, who run Philadelphia elections, stopped counting them so workers can check poll books to ensure nobody voted twice.

Almost half of the votes cast Tuesday in Pennsylvania's largest city will remain uncounted until next week.

"The outcomes of some races will not be known for weeks, and the candidates and campaigns should be prepared for that," Custodio said Friday during a meeting of the city commissioners.

As noted, this election was rather unique. Not only are we only now beginning to emerge from the coronavirus lockdown, but protests were still raging in the streets. But the real reason for the delay is that Pennsylvania just is not used to such a high volume of mail-in ballots. And they're not the only state facing this problem.

As I noted a while ago, state laws dealing with elections don't really divide up along partisan lines. It's more of an "old/new" geographical divide, with the newer states in the West embracing mail-in voting (now including Utah, a very red state) while the older states still cling to a 19th-century notion of how elections should be held (including plenty of East Coast blue states).

This election, however, has forced almost all of the reluctant states to facilitate mail-in voting for everyone who wants it, to some degree or another. The problem is that unlike states which have gradually transitioned into mail-in-only elections (like Oregon and Colorado), the states who were forced into accepting it simply are not prepared for the volume. Which means that multiple states -- including some battleground states -- might, in November, face the same situation Pennsylvania is now grappling with.

Imagine what might happen if a dozen or more states cannot report their election totals on Election Day in November. If neither candidate can show a clear win in the Electoral College, then we will be in for a very tense period of time while all the votes are accurately tallied up. Which could end up making Bush v. Gore look like Sunday school picnic. Especially considering that the very counties who are likely going to have problems counting their votes in a timely manner are precisely where a whole lot of Democrats live. Rural counties are, by definition, sparsely populated. Counting fewer ballots takes less time, to state the obvious. So we could see the lion's share of the red votes reported very quickly while the blue votes continue to trickle in.

Which the Politico article pointed out:

The fact that Philadelphia, a Democratic stronghold, is still counting mail ballots is particularly nerve-wracking for Democrats. They fear that President Donald Trump could use delays there in the fall to discredit the results -- or declare victory after rural areas where he is strongest have finished tallying mail ballots, but before Philly is done.

"The volume of votes in November will be much higher and Trump will use any opportunity he gets to question and undermine the validity of the election in November," said Amanda McIllmurray, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist, "which will disproportionately and intentionally disenfranchise Black, brown and white working-class voters."

Said one high-ranking Democratic elected official in the state: "It could, under the right circumstances lead to a constitutional crisis. Can you imagine what Donald Trump would say when they're still counting ballots in 'crooked, dirty, Democratic' Philadelphia three days after the election?"

Multiply that times a few more battleground states, and the potential for chaos becomes painfully apparent.

This is not, however, a certainty. The situation may have dramatically changed by November. Perhaps the coronavirus pandemic will not reappear in the fall. Perhaps people will be a lot more comfortable being in crowds by then. If that's the case, then fewer people (especially in states where it is a fairly new concept) will wind up voting by mail. Perhaps states will learn their lesson from the primary, as the article goes on to point out:

Still, [Wanda Murren] said, there are lessons to be learned from the election officials who were able to count the mail ballots more quickly than others. "Allegheny County was able to accomplish this because they are using the highest speed, highest capacity ballot-handling and scanning equipment available. The department is encouraging other counties to use their recent federal subgrants to acquire equipment of similar capacity before November."

Perhaps the states who lag won't matter in the grand scheme of things. If, for instance, California takes a few extra days to report their election results, nobody's going to be predicting that Trump won the state. Conversely, if Arkansas takes a while, few are going to be saying Joe Biden won it. The only place it'll even really matter is in the swing states where the outcome is not all but preordained. If enough of them do a good enough job counting ballots on Election Day, then one candidate or the other may have amassed the 270 Electoral College votes necessary, meaning waiting for Pennsylvania's total will become a mere footnote to the election. There are a lot of ways things could go "go right," in other words, instead of devolving into a constitutional crisis. Even in the battleground states, if one candidate or the other has a sufficiently overwhelming lead (one bigger than the remaining uncounted ballots, in other words), that will be enough for a victor to be declared (even if it takes days to find out the precise margin of that victory). So there's no guarantee a few hiccups will stop us all from knowing who actually won on election night.

However, if "Election Day" stretches into "Election Week," then things are almost guaranteed to get very ugly very quickly. Trump will tweet his rage, but more important will be the legal challenges both he and the Republican Party start filing in all of these states. Again, please remember Bush v. Gore. Trump has spent his entire lifetime refining the use of lawsuits into an artform. And the GOP will be more than happy to foot the bill for as many lawyers as it takes to challenge the results, no matter how many states or jurisdictions they have to file suit in.

It's already almost a certainty that if Trump loses he will spend the rest of his life pushing conspiracy theories about how the election was "stolen from him." That's pretty much a given, knowing Trump. But if we don't know the full results on the night of the election, Trump is going to shift that effort into overdrive before the sun even rises the next morning.

Which is why I sincerely hope that Pennsylvania and all the other states who are unused to high volumes of mail-in ballots will use the intervening months to get their act together in a major way. Because the scenario of waiting days to find out who won is a worry that none of us really needs, at this point.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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