WASHINGTON – The election night results in last month's congressional contest between State Sen. Chris Jacobs and Nate McMurray looked nothing like the final results – and the same thing could happen in the November battle between President Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.
With an increasing number of states encouraging the same kind of pandemic-inspired mail-in voting that dominated that congressional race, electoral pros and political scientists agree that election night 2020 may well be unlike any we have ever experienced.
Instead of a tense evening of watching states turn blue or red on television screens, expect a night of partial and potentially misleading returns, followed by ever-more-certain results in the days that follow as states count absentee ballots.
"It is really important now that everybody understands that we can't sit around with popcorn waiting to see what's going to happen on the night and know," said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.
That reality became especially clear through that special election in Western New York. As the 11 p.m. news aired in Buffalo on the night of June 23, Jacobs amassed a 42-point lead – but as the eight counties in the district counted their absentee ballots over the next several weeks, McMurray narrowed the margin to 5.3 points.
Seeing what had happened, David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report, took to Twitter last week to report on what may be a new reality in absentee voting.
Many Republicans, accustomed to hearing their president saying that vote by mail is rife with fraud, will likely go to the polls the traditional way. Meanwhile many Democrats, playing it safe amid the pandemic, will likely vote by mail – and, in many states, will get their votes counted long after Election Day.
"Need proof we’re headed for a massive divide between Election Day results & absentees? Look no further than last month’s special in #NY27," Wasserman tweeted.
But that's only part of what's at issue.
"The bigger concern here: massive potential for confusion on Election Night & doubts in the weeks following considering most of the voting public - and even much of the media - has little understanding of how a vote count actually works," Wasserman added.
A delayed-result election looks more likely by the day because more states are launching plans to encourage voting by mail amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
"There's just an awful lot of innovation going on because states don't want to have a mess on their hands on election night," said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank who has worked to develop a state-by-state scorecard on how states are doing in encouraging voting by mail.
While Kamarck, a Democrat, touts mail-in voting as every bit as reliable and respectable as going to the polling place, University at Buffalo political scientist James C. Campbell, a Republican, has his doubts.
"Deviations from standard voting practices protecting the integrity of the electoral process will bring troubles with them – from delayed results, a loss of confidence in the integrity of the results, and quite possibly a mishandling of the ballots," Campbell said.
No one has questioned the integrity of mail-in voting quite like President Trump.
"You'll have tremendous fraud if you do these mail-in ballots," Trump told reporters recently. PolitiFact has said Trump's claims about widespread vote-by-mail fraud are unfounded.
But there is no doubt those claims are pushing some Republicans away from the practice – and not just in New York's 27th Congressional District.
Robert M. Stein, a political scientist at Rice University, has been working on a survey of about 1,000 Houston-area voters to determine their attitudes about voting by mail.
Stein said about half his surveys were collected before Trump started tweeting his attacks on vote by mail in the spring, and that in those results, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans said they were likely to vote by mail in the fall because of the coronavirus crisis.
But after Trump started attacking voting by mail, the percentage of Republicans saying they would do that this fall dropped to 44%, Stein said.
Trump's rhetoric may upend a historic trend that several sources cited: that vote by mail doesn't help one political party more than the other.
"I don't know what November will bring, but it's possible that many, many Republican voters will not vote by mail – and might not even vote," Stein said.
While there is speculation that Trump is bashing vote-by-mail to sow doubts about the integrity of the election results, Stein's observation points to another possibility: that Trump's actions could suppress the Republican vote, especially in states hard hit by Covid-19 in the fall.
"What he's doing is completely crazy, counterintuitive and ultimately against his own self-interest," Kamarck said.
Some Republican consultants privately say they agree, but one of the few GOP officials willing to say that publicly is Rohn Bishop, Republican chairman in Fond du Lac County in the swing state of Wisconsin.
Asked by CNN about the reaction Republican voters have to mail-in voting, Bishop said: "Our voters are running away from it. That kind of terrifies me. ... I'm getting aggravated because I think we're only hurting ourselves."
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