Trajectory #19: The November Standoff

Mail-in Voting and a disputed 2020 US Presidential Election

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The High-Level This Week: The 2020 US presidential election will be unprecedented and remembered for the massive surge in mail-in voting and the potential impact it will have on the result. But mail-in votes will be counted slowly in the days following the election. As these votes are counted and the results change in the days after November 3rd, the risk that the result is contested, called fraudulent and even that the election will be branded as stolen by either side represents a constitutional crisis of the highest order. The 2020 US Presidential election may be the most high-stakes election in US History.

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Editor’s Letter: A Disputed 2020 US Presidential Election

In November 2020 amid a raging global pandemic the United States will hold its 59th presidential election. The result will either see incumbent Donald J. Trump reelected or see challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden become the 46th President of the United States.

The 2020 election will bring many firsts but what will likely go down in history is the expected surge in mail-in voting as opposed to in-person voting. Mail-in voting in the United States is not a new phenomenon and one that has been gaining momentum in recent elections. In 2016, about 1/4 of all votes were cast via mail-in voting. With the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic this is expected to surge to 50% of all votes according to Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who closely tracks voter turnout.

Elections held in the past 6 months of the pandemic have already hinted at the extent of the surge in mail-in voting. The state of Georgia held a primary in June and saw a whopping 1.1 million voted via mail. Incredibly, this is more than 4 times the state’s previous mail-in voting record of 219,731 in 2018.

Despite media attention otherwise mail-in voting does not have a pronounced partisan impact according to a April 2020 paper from Stanford University. The paper found

  1. vote-by-mail does not appear to affect either party’s share of turnout;

  2. vote-by-mail does not appear to increase either party’s vote share

  3. vote-by-mail modestly increases overall average turnout rates, in line with previous estimates

In fact, mail-in voting is a tried and tested tactic deployed by the Republican party in selective counties and states to maximize voter turnout and swing elections. Nonetheless, there are reasons to believe that the surge in mail-in voting in 2020 will heavily favor the Democratic party. Polls of prospective voters have found that 60% of registered voters supporting Joe Biden plan to vote by mail as opposed to just 18% of supporters of President Donald Trump.

The surge in mail-in voting and its expected favoring of Democrats is creating the risk of a scenario political experts are calling the “Red Mirage” or “Blue Shift.” Under this scenario, President Donald Trump will appear to have won on election day by a hefty margin. However, in the days following the election as mail-in votes are slowly counted his lead in several states will be whittled down and even reversed in some places which can and potentially will tilt the election in Biden’s favor.

In modelling by a top Democratic analytics firm Hawkfish President Trump will appear to have a lead of 408-130 electoral college votes on election day. Ultimately however, their model shows that once mail-in votes are fully counted Biden will win a significant victory of 334-204 electoral college votes (270 electoral college votes are required to win the election).

The concept of a Red Mirage is not a theoretical consideration - it has occurred before. When President Trump gave his victory speech in 2016, he was ahead of Hillary Clinton by 950,000 popular votes. However, in the days that followed as mail-in votes were counted his lead was reversed and Clinton finished with a popular vote lead of 2.9 million votes nationwide. Similarly, in the 2018 midterm elections in Arizona for a senate seat Republican Martha McSally had a 15,403-vote lead on Election Night. This lead then reversed and turned into a 71,303-vote deficit as Democrat Kyrsten Sinema pulled ahead thanks to mail-in votes.

The Red Mirage effect will be particularly important in swing states. In an excellent 2019 paper professor Edward B. Foley noted:

“In each of the three presidential elections before 2016 (2004, 2008, and 2012), the Democratic candidate gained over 22,000 votes in Pennsylvania between Election Night and final certification of the official results”

“In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s gain of 23,659 votes during the canvassing process was not enough to flip Pennsylvania to her column. Instead, it reduced a Trump lead of 67,951 in the state to “only” 44,292.”

The prospect of a Red Mirage creates a very dangerous and incendiary situation for American democracy. President Trump - concerned by the risk that mail-in voting presents to his reelection prospects - has repeatedly claimed mail-in voting is highly fraudulent and should be limited. The evidence is clear that mail-in voting is the most fraud-prone form of voting in the United States. Nonetheless the incidence of fraud is exceedingly rare. A 2014 Washington Post study found just 31 cases of fraud out of 1 billion votes that were studied (the Brennan Center maintains a comprehensive list of of studies of voter fraud).

Nonetheless, the President has been carefully preparing the grounds to contest the result of the election in the event of a loss and to declare the election corrupt or stolen. President Trump has been testing various taglines and arguments and has deployed them over several years.

In reference to the 2018 Senate race that saw Republican McSally’s election day lead turn into a loss once all the mail-in votes were counted, President Trump said:

The President is likely to ramp up this rhetoric in the days after the election, mobilizing the Republican party and right-wing media apparatus nationwide. If he is to lose, he may not concede on these grounds. This will create the greatest constitutional crisis in US history. Even if President Trump wins outright, the Democrats are unlikely to accept defeat sitting down and may also challenge the validity of the results.

The 2000 US Presidential election also saw its results disputed for months, but ultimately Al Gore - in the interest of national unity - conceded and refused to continue to dispute the results and take his challenge to the supreme court. 2020 is unlikely to see the same kind of patriotism and respect for political norms. The US Presidential election in November may be the highest stakes US Presidential election ever. The risk that either party refuses to accept the result will create a nationwide standoff with no easy solution. American democracy hangs in the balance.