The Coming Election Nightmare

We're unlikely to know who wins the November elections right away.

WaPo’s Amy Gardner warns, “Barring a landslide, what’s probably not coming on Nov. 3? A result in the race for the White House.”

After voters in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada went to the polls this month, some races hung in the balance for days as election officials waded through thousands of absentee ballots.

On Tuesday, a similar scenario is expected to play out in Kentucky and New York, where officials have already announced that some results will not be available for as long as a week.

In all five states, officials have contended with an avalanche of mail ballots as voters seek to avoid exposure to the novel coronavirus. It was a fresh illustration of how the pandemic is transforming the way elections are conducted in the United States.

It is also a stark preview of what’s coming on Nov. 3 — or, more accurately, what may not be coming: an election night result in the race for the White House.

If voters remain reluctant to cast ballots in person, November is likely to bring an even more massive wave of voting by mail than what has swept across the country during primary season. That, in turn, means that a close race between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in a pivotal state could take days, even weeks, to resolve, election officials across the country are warning.

Barring a landslide for either candidate, that scenario could invite an unprecedented test of the country’s faith in its elections: an extended period without a declared winner. Amid that uncertainty, few expect Trump, who has said repeatedly that he thinks mail voting could cost him the election, to soothe voter anxieties.

Now, it’s quite possible that we’ll in fact have a landslide. Trump’s unraveling has been a sight to behold and, with the economy in near-depression, the fundamentals aren’t favorable to the incumbent. Biden could well win 400 Electoral votes.

But, if we have something like a repeat of 2016—with the election outcome hinging on narrow margins in a handful of states—it’s possible that it’ll be weeks before we know the outcome. And Gardner is being too cute in saying Trump is unlikely to “soothe voter anxieties.” He’ll do everything he can to foment unrest and undermine the legitimacy of a Biden win.

As Steven Taylor noted earlier this morning, Trump and his team have been feverishly working to undermine confidence in mail-in voting. While long theorized to be the method most ripe for fraud, we have enough evidence from the actual practice now to see that those fears are unwarranted.

Conversely, if Trump should emerge victorious, there’s already an apparatus set up to claim the election was stolen through voter suppression and other chicanery. And, indeed, there’s good reason to think that those efforts are already underway.

Gardner notes the obvious:

A volley of warring lawsuits by the national parties could add to the tense environment. Already, party lawyers are battling in court fights across the country to shape voting rules that will govern the election.

The situation could plunge the country into an electoral crisis not seen since the acrimonious recount between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush 20 years ago, when the then-vice president did not concede until a Supreme Court ruling 35 days after the election, historians said. It was the longest Americans had ever waited in modern times to know who their next president would be.

Indeed, it’s a virtual certainty.

States where mail-in voting is an exception rather than the rule simply don’t have the infrastructure in place to count votes quickly. And many states—including Wisconsin and Michigan, which were pivotal in 2016—have laws on the books precluding counting mailed ballots until after the polls close on Election Day.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. It is highly problematic, too, that we as a country are primed with the expectation that we will know electoral results almost immediately after polls close. Such demand is unreasonable and unnecessary, but it is heavily ingrained and will give Trumpistas the chance to sew further doubt and create the kind of chaos noted in the OP.

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  2. sam says:

    Moderately OT, but last night, NPR did a piece on the clusterfuck known as the Georgia electoral “system”. What a mess. I’m at a loss to understand why some states do not just use paper ballots. We use them here in New Mexico and nothing could be simpler: You go in, mark your ballot, they run it through a scanner — and done. It can’t be that much harder in larger states.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Absolutely. But we’ve been calling the election reasonably early on Election Night for our entire lifetimes, with rare exception. And the popular expectation is that modern technology should make counting faster, not slower.

    It’s a mess.

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  4. @James Joyner: And it doesn’t help that most people don’t even have a basic understanding of how races are called before the full tally is in.

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  5. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    we have enough evidence from the actual practice now to see that those fears are unwarranted.

    Your thinking in the wrong terms. The don’t need to be warranted they need to be believable.

    What a mess. I’m at a loss to understand why some states do not just use paper ballots. We use them here in New Mexico and nothing could be simpler: You go in, mark your ballot, they run it through a scanner — and done. It can’t be that much harder in larger states.

    Again, the terminology is paramount. One side is thinking simple and accurate while the other is thinking maleable.

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  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    It’s all a moot discussion.
    Trump owns the Senate, the DOJ, and the SCOTUS.
    Who is going to remove him from office?
    This nation has seen 44 peaceful transitions of power.
    We will not see 45.

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  7. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: did you mean malleable as in ductile or ability to be deformed?

    @James Joyner: and it’s a “mess” because the popular expectation is that the results will be known within 5 minutes of closing the polls. After all, there are crowds at each candidate’s headquarters that are expecting a party TONIGHT dammit! Maybe we should take the attitude…. screw your expectations, doing the tally accurately and correctly is the principle goal, if that takes time so be it.

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  8. Michael Cain says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: California takes forever to count, and for known reasons the later ballots skew very heavily towards the Democratic candidates. It was amusing in 2018 that one of the Orange County Republicans running for a US House seat conceded the election while he was leading by over 5,000 votes.

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  9. JKB says:

    No candidate should concede an election until 48 hrs after the polls close regardless of media projections. Just plan a party for 2 nights later then maybe cancel if you lose.

    Breaking the media event/live event atmosphere from the elections might be beneficial. Only the pundits are likely to be harmed.

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  10. James Joyner says:

    @Bob@Youngstown:

    Maybe we should take the attitude…. screw your expectations, doing the tally accurately and correctly is the principle goal, if that takes time so be it.

    I’m rather sure. institutionally, we will. That’s in fact the assumption behind Gardner’s story and my post. The problem is that leaves a vacuum for mischief in framing the process.

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: By the time the Electoral College votes on January 6, we’ll have a new Senate. It’s entirely possible Democrats will have control.

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    @Bob@Youngstown:

    screw your expectations, doing the tally accurately and correctly is the principle goal, if that takes time so be it.

    Didn’t the Supremes already rule otherwise in Bush v Gore? Oh wait, they also said that decision wasn’t precedent, so they can get a mulligan next time if the D is leading at poll closing.

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  12. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @James Joyner:

    By the time the Electoral College votes on January 6, we’ll have a new Senate. It’s entirely possible Democrats will have control.

    Yes…and there’s not reason to doubt that Mitch and Lindsey and Joni Ernst and Ted Cruz and the AQUA Buddha will go silently into that good night.
    /snark
    For fuq’s sake…THEY STOLE A GODDAMN SCOTUS SEAT.
    Again…44 peaceful transitions. There won’t be a 45th.
    Watch closely; the Republic is ending.

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  13. inhumans99 says:

    No, the Republic is not ending. James has it right, if Biden is the winner it may take an extra day or two to confirm, and as he also pointed out there is the very real possibility that the Senate no longer contains a majority of Republicans among its ranks after the election night has been concluded (if the Democrats do not control the Senate the odds are looking good they will whittle away at the GOP’s majority in the Senate).

    I have said this before and I stand by my belief that if Trump wants to act like a child then we need to treat him like one and have Pelosi grab him by the scruff of the neck and drag him out of the toy stor…I mean White House all the while he is throwing a tantrum that he was robbed of being a two term President. Of course, if he gets the votes…well, alrighty then, he gets to spend the wee hours of the night twittering away from the Lincoln bedroom for the next four years, yay America, MAGA and all that jazz.

    I am cautiously optimistic this will not happen and Presidential tweets become a thing consigned to history’s dustbin.

    Also, he put an Executive Order into place today that statues will be guarded, oh joy, another great use for our hard-working military…pacing back and forth in front of Confederate statues with an armed weapon to make Trump happy. And knowing Trump he will authorize them to shoot any protesters who try to take down a statue…yeah, I am sure only good things will come from this EO of his.

    I sincerely believe that Americans are more exhausted at having to deal with a toddler in the White House than they are letting on and will be somewhat eager to re-set the clock this Nov, so to speak.

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  14. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @inhumans99:

    I have said this before and I stand by my belief that if Trump wants to act like a child then we need to treat him like one and have Pelosi grab him by the scruff of the neck and drag him out of the toy stor…I mean White House<

    Sure…ok…but not very realistic.
    And what if Republicans hold the Senate, even by one seat?
    Again…Trump owns the Senate, the DOJ, the SCOTUS.
    How are you going to get him out?
    Baghdad Barr will simply drag everything out.
    The Republican Senate won't do anything.
    Any challenge in the courts will fail when it reaches the SCOTUS.

    " Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances…"

    Even if Trump loses convincingly, Barr could still drag it out for years.
    Seriously…what's the actual, real world mechanism to get him out?
    Anyone? Bueller?

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  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Bob@Youngstown: Well, the people who want it to be malleable would not want you to say “deformed,” but I won’t object to that meaning. I was curious at the thought that people who want the system to be simple and accurate would not want it to be ductile, though.

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  16. CSK says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:
    I think you send a contingent of Marines into the White House to remove Trump bodily. If he has to be picked up and carried out, so be it. He will deserve the humiliation.

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  17. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @CSK:

    I think you send a contingent of Marines into the White House to remove Trump bodily.

    Who is going to send them in?
    Dead serious question.

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  18. CSK says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:
    I know it was serious. I can’t answer it offhand, unless the Marines’ loyalty to the Constitution is greater than their loyalty to Trump. I’m thinking now that he’ll resign before the election to spare himself the utter humiliation of a landslide loss.

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