What to expect on an odd election night

Early Returns

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A Democratic data and analytics group called Hawkfish (disclosure: funded by Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP) is sounding the alarm about what they've named the "red mirage" — the pattern in which election night vote counts will tend to be more Republican than the eventual final tally. That's been the case for several election cycles, and there's a good chance the effect will be magnified this year for two reasons: More voters are choosing to vote absentee, and because of President Donald Trump's scare stories, more Democrats than Republicans will likely be mailing in their votes.

Let's get the basics on the table:

  • There's nothing wrong with slow counts of absentee ballots. It's more important to get the count right than to do it fast.
  • Absentee votes take longer to tabulate because they're safe. It takes time, for example, to check signatures and otherwise ensure that a ballot is legitimate.
  • The reason for heavier use of mail voting in 2020 is simple: It's the pandemic.
  • The evidence in past elections is that absentee voting helps neither party.
  • Democrats tend to gain in counting after Election Day because of who votes when (for instance, older voters tend to vote as soon as they can while younger voters tend to wait until the last minute). This pattern has held in states where Republicans dominate as well as in California where Democrats hold most offices, so it's about when people vote, not who is counting the ballots.
  • Trump will cry fraud regardless of evidence or results. We know this because he's falsely cried fraud before, even in 2016 when he won.

The conclusion we should draw from all of this is that the count will take a while in many states — especially those where ballots need only be postmarked, not delivered, by Election Day. And we should expect the count to move toward Democrats after the initial tally. The news media should prepare everyone for these facts in advance, and then cover the results with them in mind. Just as good reporters have always cautioned readers about early returns and disparate voting patterns in various states, this year they'll need to be alert to different absentee practices. 

The good news is that I'm seeing a fair amount of this awareness already. That said: We shouldn't overdo it. Hawkfish is presenting a scenario in which an apparent 408-130 win for the president on Nov. 3 eventually becomes a 334-204 Biden victory. That's not impossible, but it's a stretch. Many states count their absentee ballots rapidly; the California pattern of taking weeks to get it done is relatively rare. It's possible that normally quick states will collapse this year given unprecedented use of mail voting, but most have been preparing for that possibility and are unlikely to be completely overwhelmed. As Politico's Steven Shepard points out, large media organizations will also have exit polls, and while those are hardly perfect, the people who run them have had many cycles to get used to early and absentee voting.

The basic principle here is very simple: All votes cast legitimately should be counted. In 2000, we didn't know who the next president would be for a few weeks, and it was still fine. The good news is that even with the various slow counts, if the presidential election isn't close then we'll probably know the winner promptly in any case. If the election is close, then waiting is pretty normal. And when Trump claims fraud, just ignore him.

1. Julia Azari on the Republican convention and democracy. Must-read.

2. Seth Masket on Trump and breaking the rules.

3. Kyle Peyton, Paige E. Vaughn and Gregory A. Huber at the Monkey Cage on public opinion about policing.

4. S.V. Date on one of the many head-of-state responsibilities Trump hasn't been doing, despite claims at his convention.

5. Ronald Brownstein on all the Republicans endorsing former Vice President Joe Biden.

6. Fred Kaplan on military tactics and the police.

7. Philip Klein on how Biden would govern.

8. And the latest from the Bright Line Watch — experts concerned about democracy in the U.S.

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