The disconnect between when votes are cast and when they are counted could create a crisis of legitimacy in the United States.
Millions have already cast their ballots in the 2020 elections. Tens of millions more will cast their ballots in person between now and Nov. 3. On top of that, untold millions will send in a ballot by mail. Then, on what America still thinks of as Election Day, roughly half of all votes will be cast.
In terms of voting, that’s the end of the story.
But in terms of announcing the results, it’s only the beginning.
Broadly speaking, there are two scenarios for what will happen next. The first scenario is fairly easy. If Joe Biden maintains his current lead (an 8-point advantage in my latest poll), he will be declared the winner on election night. That’s the way it has usually worked in the television era.
However, if the race tightens, things will be much different, and much more dangerous.
If President Donald Trump makes a comeback and pulls to within a few points in the national popular vote, we could again be watching just a few key states to determine who will win the Electoral College. The states will be similar to 2016 — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, perhaps with Arizona and Minnesota added to the mix.
The difference will be in how long it takes to determine the winner in those states. Because of the pandemic, election officials are bracing for an unprecedented level of mail-in votes. That’s not a big deal in a state like Utah. But for many other states — including the potentially pivotal state of Pennsylvania — massive voting by mail is an entirely new experience. The counting and reporting will be a process fraught with confusion and error.
Again, this will only happen if the race tightens a little bit in the coming weeks. But if it does, we won’t know the winner of the presidential election until Thanksgiving or later. We also won’t know who won control of the U.S. Senate, dozens of U.S. House seats and control of several state legislatures. Simply put, there will be chaos.
Adding to the problem will be the way votes are counted and reported. Even though all the ballots will be turned in by Nov. 3, they won’t be counted for weeks. Those who voted last — in person on Election Day — will have their votes reported first. Thirty-four states don’t allow the mail-in ballots to be counted until the other votes have been cast.
This will lead to a very uncomfortable dynamic.
Polls show that President Trump leads handily among those who will vote in person on Election Day. But former Vice President Biden has a huge lead among those planning to vote by mail. As a result, in a close election, the president will have the lead in votes counted on Election Day. Quite possibly, it will be a significant lead in critically important states.
Then, every day for several weeks, we will hear the results of the mail-in ballots. And those results will consistently show Biden cutting into Trump’s reported lead (and it will also show Democrats gaining in Senate, House and state legislative races). It will be a drip, drip, drip experience.
This can lead to one of two results, neither of which will strengthen public confidence in the electoral process. The first possibility is that after a few weeks, Biden passes Trump in key states and is declared the winner of the Electoral College. The second is that Trump hangs on to a narrow victory. Every step of the way will be played out against a backdrop of lawyers contesting just about every mailed-in ballot.
Whatever the outcome, the losers will feel they were cheated. If Biden wins in this manner, Republicans will believe Democrats just kept counting and finding ballots until they had enough. If Trump prevails, Democrats will believe it’s because the GOP suppressed the votes of too many Biden supporters.
The winner of such an election will be considered an illegitimate president by half the country. And that will lead to a long four years.
Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”