Get ready for a strange election night

Early Returns

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Here are few short comments about the odd mechanics of election administration in 2020.

First, a really good point from the Cook Political Report's David Wasserman:

It is absolutely imperative that every news outlet prepare viewers for the reality that unprecedented partisan polarization of early/EDay votes makes lopsided batches of results *expected,* not suspicious, on 11/3.

I think that's the best way to put it. Those who have been following this topic know to expect a "red mirage" as last-minute absentee-ballot voters, typically younger and therefore more likely to support Democrats, are the last to have their votes counted, with the process potentially stretching for days or even weeks after Election Day. There's also some expectation that states where early and absentee votes are the first to be counted will show a big early lead for former Vice President Joe Biden until in-person Election Day votes start getting tallied. But those are only general patterns, and some states may differ. The safe thing to say is that we may see some wild swings as votes are counted, and that's just an artifact of the very different voting methods different groups are using.

Second, a word of caution about first impressions of election problems. What may seem really weird, and possibly a sign of trouble, might not be. Listen to the experts, not to partisans. For example: Georgia began in-person early voting on Monday, and reports quickly emerged of extremely long lines, with some people waiting for hours to vote. Vote suppression? Perhaps. But Georgia will have almost three weeks of early in-person voting, and veteran observers noted that a lot of people simply like turning up as soon as possible, even if it takes a long time. Let's see how the lines are as the week goes on. If it remains an issue, then we can talk about suppression. But if not, it's not exactly a massive problem. After all, many states don't have early in-person voting at all. 

Third, almost 11 million ballots have been accepted so far, with a solid majority of states already receiving absentee ballots (mailed or dropped off), in-person early votes, or both. There's going to be a record number of early votes this year, and there will no doubt be some complaints about stretching the election out over some two months. What about those who voted before the first debate, and before President Donald Trump's hospitalization? Isn't it a problem that Americans no longer vote (more or less) simultaneously?

Don't worry about it. These complaints, and we're sure to hear them, are based on a false understanding of voters and elections — the idea that voters carefully study all the policy positions and other information available about each candidate, and vote according to some calculation about which contender is closer to the voter's policy positions, or at least which one has the record of accomplishment that the voter finds most impressive. 

In fact, that's not what voters do. Most use parties as a shortcut; not only that, but most of them absorb information about candidates through a party lens. And that's fine. There's no reason that we should go into each election without preconceived notions about parties and their candidates. Party voting is good enough. So is a rough version of retrospective voting, in which voters base their decision on an estimate of whether the incumbents have done a good job or not. The key point is: Everyone paying even a little attention had more than enough information to make their choices months ago, and voters have a tendency to overvalue more recent information; if stretching the election out has the effect of diluting the importance of any particular late event, we're all probably better off. 

I do think there's something lost in moving from in-person Election Day voting at a local polling place (in a normal year, that is; obviously that wasn't going to be viable during a pandemic). It was nice to run into neighbors and be able to see voting as a civic exercise jointly shared by a community. If it were up to me, I'd put a lot of money into trying to make that work. But even though I like that style of voting, I can't really argue that it's nearly as important as making voting as easy as possible.

1. Dave Hopkins on this year's Electoral College competition. As I said last week: To me, the big news here is an increase from the historically low total of big cities in contested states.

2. Bryan Schonfeld and Sam Winter-Levy at the Monkey Cage on the possible longer-term effects of the summer protests on public opinion.

3. Casey Dominguez on how to get young people to vote.

4. Cat Gloria and Hannah Rabinowitz on how Trump's bogus claims of voter fraud have fared when they come before judges.

5. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Joe Nocera on Trump and coal.

6. Helen Coster on the TV networks' plans for election night. At this point, I'm cautiously optimistic that they're going to handle this responsibly. At the very least, they seem to have heard what elections experts are telling them.

7. And Daniel Nichanian's cheat sheet for all the races — federal, state, local — worth following on election night.

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