Americans are voting in record numbers by mail – and that could add days, if not weeks, to the counting process. But Donald Trump says the winner should be determined faster – on election day.
“It would be very, very right and very nice if a winner was announced on November 3rd instead of counting ballots for two weeks, which is totally inappropriate and I don’t think that is our law to do so,” he said on Tuesday to reporters.
Not only is it perfectly legal for votes to be counted after election day – it’s normal too. For example, the day after the election in 1968, the New York Times published the results from state to state. In most states there were still significant numbers of ballots to count.
When the election officials finished counting the ballot papers, the results switched from the day-to-day report. For example, in Alabama, the final results showed that Democrat Hubert Humphrey scored several percentage points better than originally thought.
This is not rocket science: it takes time to count votes – and when votes are counted the results change.
And over the past few decades, it has become increasingly common for votes to be counted for more than a few days. Election scholars Edward Foley and Charles Stewart measured this through elections over several decades. They took the New York Times results two days after an election and compared them with the final results. You call these “overtime” voices.
They also found that the last votes counted tended to lean towards Democrats in what they termed and coined the term as the “blue shift”.
A record number of mail-in ballots this year could add to this shift.
Trump has said that the mail-in vote is rigged, that the votes counted later are “inappropriate” and that he can only lose the election if it is rigged.
There are legitimate reasons for the blueshift phenomenon, however, and they were up and running well before Trump took office.
1. Postal voting: Even before the pandemic, more and more people voted by post. But the party-political collapse of these postal ballots was only slightly in favor of the Democrats:
In 2020 it will be drastically different. A record number of people have already voted by mail, and in battlefield states like Pennsylvania, Democrats request and return ballots at a far faster rate than Republicans.
Postal ballot papers often take longer to count because they need to be “processed” – which basically means figuring out whether to count the ballot. This includes manual processes like checking that the signature on the voting slip matches the one on the file. However, each state has different laws about when postal votes can be processed.
In major swing states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, election officials cannot process their ballot papers until election day. This means that we can expect a large number of overtime votes in these states – and that the votes in these potentially decisive states could shift towards Democrats.
2. Provisional ballot papers: Voters who run into problems in the elections can still cast a preliminary vote. For example, some voters are told that they are not on the electoral roll – possibly because they recently registered and the electoral roll is not up to date, or because they made a mistake on their registration form.
These ballot papers are put on a separate pile and after election day the issues are sorted out and either counted or not. This takes time, which is why they are often not part of the initial count.
And preliminary ballots tend to skew Democrats:
Foley and Stewart speculate that this is because voters who skew Democrats, like young voters and voters of color, tend to be more mobile. So if they have moved to an area and are registering just before an election, they may not be on the older electoral rolls used by election workers.
Additionally, Republicans have passed various measures, such as voter identification laws, to make it more difficult for people of color to vote, which may force them to cast a preliminary vote.
3. Boroughs take longer to report results: Boroughs tend to favor Democrats, and they have more people. Counting all votes can take longer.
It’s understandable why it looks to the casual observer like Democrats are voting after the buzzer. In reality, these are votes that are cast legally and on time – but they are randomly counted later.
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