Voters and media alike, beware: We may not know the winners next Tuesday night. We may not know until all eligible absentee ballots are counted days later.
Voters should stay tuned, and media outlets should stay the temptation to “call” elections on election night.
Why? Because the coronavirus means more people are voting by mail, and because disproportionately more Democrats than Republicans appear to be voting by mail.
The upshot: President Donald Trump and other Republicans may be ahead election night, or even declare victory, but end up losing.
This is a recipe for discord, dissension and disruption.
A new study says North Carolina is one of nine states where this “blue shift” could be big enough to change results. As things stand now in our state, absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day and received through Nov. 12 will be counted. If races are close and if thousands of absentee ballots come in late, we may not know the winners until mid-November.
(A reminder: Absentee ballots and mail-in ballots are the same thing.)
This scenario is scarier than any October surprise or Halloween horror. We’re already at each other’s throats over the election. Trump has told rallies all over the country — with no basis in fact — that mail-in ballots are crooked. Many Democrats believe Trump and Republicans can win only by voter suppression and cheating.
COVID-19 has upended our lives since March. Now the pandemic might upend our lives, our elections and our nation’s stability in November and December.
As one Democratic strategist said, “Trump and his supporters are going to scream if it looks like he's going to win on election night, but gradually loses as mail ballots are counted.”
He added, “The media is only making a halfhearted effort to make people aware this is likely to happen.”
North Carolina experienced something like this four years ago. Then-Gov. Pat McCrory led now-Gov. Roy Cooper most of election night 2016. Finally, late that night, the 90,000 votes from heavily Democratic Durham County came in. Cooper edged ahead.
McCrory and Republicans howled. They demanded a recount. They claimed fraud in Durham. McCrory didn’t concede for weeks, until it became clear he had lost by just over 10,000 votes out of 4.6 million cast.
The Washington Post published an analysis of the election-shift scenario by a group called the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States, which surveys Americans on attitudes and behaviors related to the coronavirus pandemic:
“(G)iven the pandemic, many more voters than usual are expected to cast their ballots by mail in the 2020 general election. ... If in-person ballots are disproportionately cast by Republicans and mail-in ballots disproportionately cast by Democrats, some states’ results may undergo a ‘blue shift’ — shifting further toward the Democratic candidate over time.”
Along with North Carolina, the states where the shift could be significant are Alaska, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.
All nine have two things in common. First, they’re competitive. Second, they don’t process all mailed-in ballots before Election Day, or they accept ballots that arrive late but are postmarked by Election Day. Several are key battlegrounds in the presidential race.
The consortium concluded, “Given the tensions surrounding this election, journalists, pundits and voters alike may wish to keep in mind that if a candidate declares victory on election night, that lead may evaporate as more votes are counted.”
It won’t be over until all the votes are counted.
Gary Pearce was an adviser to former Gov. Jim Hunt. He blogs at www.NewDayforNC.com.
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