Election day is finally coming. This will be the highest-stakes election in our lifetime. We could see the end of American democracy or a rebirth. This is how large the stakes are. I believe people understand it, why turnout is already at historic levels, even within a global pandemic. However, there are a few things that need explaining. Why? We all are used to knowing, more or less, who the president-elect will be by the end of the night. It’s not that it is official, for that we need the elections in all fifty states to be certified. The public is used to this certainty and there is a chance that when we wake up on November Fourth, there will still be uncertainty as to who is going to be sworn in January of 2021.
The first thing that needs to be tackled is how does the media call elections? I have heard this question many times from people who tend to complain that elections are called as soon as polls are closed. There is no magic here. There are no dark arts unless you call math, some form of magic. What the media does are projections, not certified elections. This matters, because no election is official until it is certified. These projections are based on very simple math. So let me explain this for a fictional election between two candidates. I will keep the math simple, with only a potential 100 votes. Take these examples and extrapolate them to any election you follow.
The first scenario involves calling it early, perhaps when the polls close. Realize the first batch of ballots involves mail-in ballots that in many states are counted earlier in the day in a state with one hundred percent vote by mail, Some states are already counting ballots, like Arizona. it’s possible that the vast majority of the ballot count will be released in this first batch, as soon as the polls close. What remains are delayed votes and in many cases, military votes that can take longer to get to the local counting authority. So to stick to Arizona for the moment, it is very likely that we will know who won most races as soon as precincts close. In other words, in states that do this, we could have an early night.
Let’s go back to our scenario. 90 of our fictional ballots were counted before the polls closed. Candidate A and B both get 45 ballots. The other ten can give the election to either. No media group will call that election. This is too close to call Until the other ten votes are counted, we can’t. And if they remain within the margin of error, it will trigger a recount in some states. Why? Manual recounts are likely the only way to see who actually won. Yes, we have seen it, where a candidate has won by a single vote, days, or weeks later. I hardly expect this to happen with the presidential election. It may be that close in a state, but hardly in all fifty. That election is decided by the electoral college, and I expect this to not be close in the electoral college.
Now, let’s explore a more common scenario. Candidate A gets 70 votes, and candidate B 20 votes. It is the same 90 votes already counted, but there is no way on this earth that 20 outstanding ballots will change the result. This is a race that is easy to call. In fact, most media outlets will project a winner. Now you know how this is done.
There are many variations of this theme. This is why the media can call an election in a given state as soon as the polls close and the first batch of ballots is released. Major outfits have people with a calculator looking at two things, votes counted and how many votes are left to count. If there are not enough to change an election, most media will call an election. It does not matter what level of government you are looking at. Elections for your school board, or the presidency are called the same exact way.
However, this greatly matters. The Associated Press, or Fox, or CNN calling an election does not make it official as I wrote above. This is only the case when an election is certified, not before that, by the Secretary of State. You must also understand, each state has different rules regarding all this. So this will make this especially interesting. Some states, like Arizona, are already counting. Others will not start until the day of the election. Some states do not have the infrastructure for a heavy vote by mail, while others do.
Let’s look at California which did one hundred percent vote by mail this year due to COVID. You are an active voter, you got a ballot. This was by an executive order from the governor. The State has been moving in this direction for some time. Therefore, the state has the infrastructure to handle that surge. Pennsylvania does not, ergo they are going to be slower in counting the ballots. That state could also be close at the presidential level, meaning we will have to wait for a result.
Florida has the infrastructure, so we should know earlier than Pennsylvania as to who is likely to win that election. Given the surge in early voting, there is a good chance we will know early in the evening who won Florida.
Realize that Trump voters are planning to vote in person. The president has convinced many that a mail-in ballot is illegitimate. So in some of these states, we can expect twists and turns as the early vote count only includes what was cast that day. There are still a lot of votes to be counted. We know that the Republican Party is expected to argue that mail-in ballots are not legitimate. They are trying to repeat Florida 2000 in multiple states
Like media, political operations know where potentials ballots are. This is what they use when they decide to stay in a race they still think they can win, even when behind. This is why at times you see incredible come from behind moments for candidates. They simply have good ground game operations that allow them to know there are still missing ballots by the end of the night.
We have seen this more than a few times, where candidates come out and tell the faithful and media to hang on. They know that they still have a chance, a few times they go from behind to winning elections. On the other hand, these are the same ground level analysis made to decide on both concession and victory speeches.
One tactic often used is to declare victory when ahead. I expect to see this from the Donald Trump campaign the night of the election, incidentally. The reason is simple. This helps to establish a storyline and if you remember 2000 this is exactly what George Bush did, even when it was going to take 36 days of court cases and trying, ultimately succeeding, in stopping the count. However, if we start having states go the wrong way for Trump early in the night, this will be more difficult to do.
So What to Expect
We might go to bed with the president leading in the electoral college. Some states will count early, others will take their time. Some, like Arizona, will release most of the count that night. Others will not. So there will be some uncertainty. I expect the president’s team to try to claim victory early, even when more careful people will not jump on that wagon.
Will Fox News behave like a responsible news outlet, or will they become fire breathers? This is a good question, and likely they will have a battle Royal behind the scenes between their talking heads and the few journalists that still remain. I expect the Associated Press and other national media to be responsible and wait to project winners until the bulk of the ballots are in. This could take days, and totals may switch from one candidate to the other.
We also have another factor. This is already shaping to be an election with a historic turnout. Meaning we have people voting for the first time, or the first time in many years. So the best-case scenario is that we will know early in the night. Meaning, voting is already at historic levels, and many of those voters are not getting polled. They are first-time voters. So there is also a possibility that we will be over 270 electoral votes early in the night. I do not expect a concession from the president. He has told us he will fight, and that is his instinct. I hope I am wrong for the sake of the nation. But if we start with Florida early in the night, there is a good chance that we will have a landslide.