The red and blue mirages we could see on election night, briefly explained
Still, 2020 is an unusual year. There’s been a huge increase in people voting by mail, and those ballots take longer to process and count. Some states have already started to process these ballots before Election Day, but others can’t even begin to do so until that date. Some states require ballots to be delivered to election offices by Election Day; others just say ballots have to be postmarked by then and offer a few extra days for those envelopes to be received.
This morass of election rules means it’s unlikely Americans will know the winners on November 3, and counting could take many more days, possibly weeks if there are extremely close races. But news outlets are going to be reporting the returns, and many anxious Trump and Biden supporters may be refreshing the results over and over as polls close around the country and precincts begin posting vote tallies.
Some of those initial results may look really good — maybe even shockingly good — for your preferred candidate, depending on who that is and which state you’re looking at. But those initial results can be deceiving, and this is especially true in 2020.
It could look like Trump and other Republican candidates are on the verge of winning in some states on election night, only for Biden and Democrats to surge ahead after more mail-in ballots are counted. Or, Biden and Democrats could look like they’re poised for big upsets in some states, only to see those leads slipping away.
This is why experts are warning everyone watching the results to beware of possible red — or blue — mirages.
The red and blue “mirages,” briefly explained
More than 95 million Americans have already voted ahead of Election Day this year. A huge chunk of that early vote comes from mail-in ballots, after the Covid-19 pandemic prompted many states to expand access to voting by mail.
Many more Democrats than Republicans have voted by mail, at least based on registration data from a handful of states where that’s available. This isn’t exactly a surprise, given Trump’s baseless but nonetheless repeated claims of widespread voter fraud through the mail. Voter fraud in general is already very, very rare, and mail-in voting is no exception. But Trump’s message has sunk in with his supporters and Republican voters more generally, who are voting by larger numbers in person and are also expected to turn out and vote on Election Day.
This partisan divide in how voters are casting their ballots means the early results in some swing states could be very lopsided early on election night. Who they’re lopsided for depends on which state you’re looking at.
The blue mirage
Some states, like Florida and Arizona, have begun to count and process mail-in ballots. North Carolina and Georgia are also processing ballots, which means that they’re physically opening those envelopes and verifying signatures and addresses with voters’ registration files.
Election officials there can’t officially begin tabulating those ballots until Election Day or after the polls close, but the hardest, most-labor intensive part is already complete — which means those vote counts shouldn’t take very long.
In these states and others that saw big increases in mail-in voting, the results might look overwhelmingly favorable to Joe Biden and other Democratic candidates early on in the night. This is the so-called “blue mirage,” where mail-in and early votes give the edge to Democrats, one that could narrow substantially as Election Day in-person votes are tallied.
The red mirage
The opposite could happen in other key swing states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, where election officials can’t even begin to process mail-in ballots until the day before (Michigan) or on Election Day (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) because Republicans in those state legislatures blocked attempts to start counting earlier.
The early results in these states will reflect the in-person votes, which means they may overwhelmingly favor Trump and Republican candidates. Here, then, we have the “red mirage,” followed by the risk of a “blue shift” — when Democratic mail-in ballots are tabulated, those results swing toward Biden and Democrats. Given the late start these states have at counting mail-in ballots, it may take days after November 3 to count all of them.
But these initial results are called “mirages” for a reason. They’re not final, and they won’t be fully representative of the electorates in these states. The leads might change, sometimes drastically, depending on when votes are tallied. Some election officials are preparing for this by trying to avoid massive dumps of ballots that give the appearance of dramatic swings, but it could still happen in some places.
Just a reminder that the election isn’t over until it’s over
Of the two mirages, many people are most concerned about the red one — that is, the scenario where Trump is way ahead in states he won in 2016, like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, early on Election Day. Pennsylvania, especially, is shaping up to be a particularly contentious battleground.
The big concern here is that Trump will declare victory (whether or not news organizations do) in those states, long before all the votes are tallied and certainly before all the Democratic-heavy mail-in ballots are tabulated. This is actually his plan, according to Axios. And the fear is that his campaign will try to intercede and stop the counting of those remaining ballots through the courts, even though it is totally and completely normal for many states to count ballots after Election Day, especially absentee, overseas, and provisional ballots.
Again, vote counting is never finished on election night. Many states offer a grace period for ballots to arrive; for example, Pennsylvania will count ballots that arrive up until November 6, as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day. (Those ballots have to be set aside in a separate category because they’re currently the subject of litigation.) Some states have more lenient deadlines for overseas or military voters. And states must count eligible provisional ballots, which are usually tallied last because they require extra scrutiny.
News outlets will project winners in certain states even before all those ballots are counted, usually based on a lot of data, including public polling, turnout data, and other factors. Some states, even all-important swing states like Florida, might be called on election night. However, the tighter the race is, the harder it becomes to accurately make those projections, which means waiting longer for more and more votes to be counted.
It is still possible America might have a sense of the projected winner on election night, or maybe the morning after. But so is the possibility that it’s just going to be harder to call races this year because of expanded mail-in voting and other changes to election rules. Which means any pundits or news outlets who try to prognosticate on a state before a good portion of the votes are counted are setting themselves up to be wrong.
“Anyone who wants to call Pennsylvania with 30 percent of the votes counted, I guess they were celebrating the Atlanta Falcons Super Bowl victory against the New England Patriots,” David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research (CEIR), said on a call with reporters last week. “There’s more time in the game to play. And we’re going to let the process play out, just like it always has.”
The media doesn’t decide who won or lost an election, nor do the candidates themselves. Official results usually take a few weeks, through a process known as the canvass, in which each vote is counted and verified and then officially certified, first by the local counties and then by the state’s secretary of state or state Board of Elections. And that’s if all goes well; depending on how the race unfolds, it can trigger recounts and other legal challenges along the way.
Election Day is, in a lot of ways, the beginning of the process, not the end. The system is set up this way to balance two goals: integrity in the election system and enfranchising voters. Both of these have the effect of slowing the vote tabulation. Mail-in ballots, for example, require extra verification steps, but offering voters opportunities to fix errors in those ballots guarantees that as many voters as possible have their votes counted.
Neither of those things is controversial, or at least they shouldn’t be. Voters, whatever their party or candidate, should want safe and secure elections and believe strongly that every vote should count. Yes, everyone is anxious and wants answers. But we should also want our democracy to work for everyone.