Watch and wait
Election night could provide a quick White House winner, or a flood of mail-in ballots and social division could delay results for weeks
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On Election Day morning, thousands of Philadelphia police officers will wake to 12-hour shifts and watch 21 police districts for any trouble brewing in the City of Brotherly Love. But they won’t get within 100 feet of a polling place. State law doesn’t allow officers on-site unless it’s an emergency.
It’s a provision to make sure voters don’t feel intimidated and a common practice among many police forces across the country. Some states allow an officer to drive an unmarked car near a polling place on patrol, but most voters won’t recognize them.
Such arrangements usually work fine, but this year, officers are on alert: With political and social tensions running higher than they’ve risen for decades, police are bracing for potential turmoil.
In Philadelphia, they’re making plans: If an election official calls police for help with a disturbance at a polling place, a police supervisor will accompany an officer to the location. Both officers will wear body cameras to record any encounter.
The long beats won’t end when the polls close, and some officers are bracing for the potential of real trouble starting after election results roll in. They’re also bracing for the possibility that results might not fully roll in for weeks.
Twenty years ago this November, a Florida recount kicked the presidential election into a 36-day wait that landed in the U.S. Supreme Court and ended in a 537-vote victory for George W. Bush over Vice President Al Gore.
This year, the final election results could be apparent early. But with mail-in voting expected to hit an all-time high, crucial swing states could struggle to process the enormous volume quickly. A close contest that takes days, or even weeks, to tally—or a presidential candidate contesting the results—could lead to lawsuits or recounts dragging into December.
That kind of electoral stew could boil over: After months of demonstrations and riots rocking the nation this year, Philadelphia First Deputy Commissioner Melvin Singleton says his force expects protests after the election. Federal officials are also on the lookout for extremist groups and sinister plots.
New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea put a sharp point on it. “I would liken it to a powder keg,” Shea told a police research group in October. “And I think the rule here is to expect the unexpected.”
AS ELECTION DAY draws near, it’s worth watching for a particular outcome that could defy pundits’ expectations: We could know the winner of the presidential election by the next morning.
Preparing for protracted results is wise, but it’s also possible that one of the candidates will clearly pull ahead in the race for the 270 votes needed to win the Electoral College and secure the presidency.
Many predict Democratic nominee Joe Biden would be most likely to win in such a scenario. They point to weeks of polls showing Biden leading President Donald Trump by double digits nationally and by a few points in swing states.
The race is also tighter than usual in unexpected places. Biden has been neck-and-neck with Trump in Texas and Georgia, while Trump was leading in South Carolina by only 8 percentage points: The president won the reliably Republican state by 14 points in 2016.
An unusually close Senate race between Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison could be dragging down Trump’s numbers—but Trump could also pull Graham up in straight-ticket voting on Election Day.
Meanwhile, a tight Senate race in North Carolina grew more turbulent in October: Republican Sen. Thom Tillis contracted the coronavirus during an outbreak connected to the White House, and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham acknowledged having an affair. Cunningham stayed in the race, but the scandal could dampen Democratic enthusiasm in a swing state Trump needs to stay red.
Though polls show Biden leading in swing states, it’s important to remember those races are close: A few-point spread can go either way on Election Day and make the contest closer than many predict. But no matter what voters tell pollsters, if they don’t cast a ballot, the results won’t reflect the preelection sentiment.
If voter turnout is critical, there’s one less-noticed set of numbers that makes some Democrats nervous—voter registrations. The Cook Political Report noted on Oct. 1 that Republicans had “swamped” Democrats in adding new voters in key swing states.
In Florida, since the March primary, the GOP added 195,652 voters. Democrats added 98,362. In Pennsylvania, Republicans had added 135,619 voters since June. Democrats had gained 57,985. In North Carolina, the GOP was up 83,785 voters since March. Democrats had added 38,137.
If the election grows closer than expected, Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at MIT, says we still may know more on election night than we’re anticipating. For example, results from counties that voted for Trump in 2016 may be revealing if they show those voters tilting away from Trump in 2020.
When it comes to specific states, Stewart runs down a possible sequence to follow on election night:
First, watch Florida. Since election officials begin processing mail-in ballots in the swing state three weeks before Election Day, we may have a good idea of Florida’s results by 10 p.m. (North Carolina and Arizona also process mail-in ballots in advance, and those results could post sooner than later.)
If Biden wins Florida, Stewart predicts the path grows difficult for Trump to win the election.
What if the Florida contest is close or Trump carries the state? Watch Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. If Biden sweeps those swing states, Trump again has a steep hill to climb.
But this is also where things grow tangled for a simple reason with a web of complications: a mountain of mail-in ballots that can’t be counted until Election Day.
SOME OF THE MOST iconic images from the Florida recount in 2000 were handfuls of men and women sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, sometimes nearly cheek-to-cheek, straining toward an election official holding a ballot for the group to recheck and record.
This year, a groundswell of painstaking work begins on the front end of the election. The pressing issue at the moment isn’t a ballot recount—though that could happen—it’s counting the ballots in the first place.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread, many voters began requesting absentee ballots to cast their votes by mail. Meanwhile, election officials in California, Nevada, New Jersey, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., mailed ballots directly to all registered voters for the first time. (Five other states already had been conducting their elections primarily by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.)
In the primary season earlier this year, mail-in ballots accounted for at least half the votes cast in the 37 states where the data were reported, according to Pew Research. That’s at least double the number that voted by mail in the same precincts in the general election in 2016.
In Pennsylvania, the ballot numbers swelled to a tsunami: Nearly 1.5 million voters opted for mail-in ballots in June primaries. That’s 17 times the number that voted by mail in the 2016 primaries. The tidal wave overwhelmed election workers and delayed results in some contests by weeks.
Consider the timetable election officials face: Pennsylvania state law doesn’t allow workers to start processing the ballots until Election Day. That’s doable in a normal election year, but when an unprecedented amount of paperwork piles up, the process inevitably takes longer.
Some workers do use machines for parts of the process, and officials in Philadelphia used a $10 million grant to invest in new machinery ahead of the contests. But that work still can’t begin until 7 a.m. on Election Day.
That’s when workers will feed ballots into a machine that rejects any without a signature on the outer envelope. Another machine will open the outer envelope, and election workers will pull out the “secrecy envelope” inside. If voters didn’t place their completed ballot in the required secrecy envelope, the ballot is tossed out. (It’s called “a naked ballot” and considered invalid.)
Workers place the secrecy envelopes into a slicing machine that opens them. The workers then pull out the paper ballots, unfold them, and feed them into a tabulation machine one by one. The Los Angeles Times reported Philadelphia officials expect to have 22 people processing several hundred thousand ballots beginning on Election Day.
Not only could the count of mail-in ballots already in hand take longer, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in June that officials could count ballots postmarked by 8 p.m. on Election Day up until Friday of election week. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision.
Since Democrats are opting for mail-in ballots at higher rates than Republicans, the slower process could lead to what some political scientists call “a blue shift”: Results could show Trump winning Pennsylvania on election night but shift toward Biden as more mail-in ballots are processed.
The process isn’t the same everywhere. Each state sets its own rules for voting, and 34 states allow election workers to start various forms of processing mail-in ballots days or weeks in advance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Florida, for example, a 22-day head start on processing and tallying votes could help avoid major counting delays. (It’s a felony to release the results early.)
But in at least two other closely watched swing states, tight timetables stand: Wisconsin workers can’t process mail-in ballots until Election Day. Michigan lawmakers voted in September to give election workers a 10-hour head start on processing mail-in ballots before Election Day.
In Pennsylvania, the Republican Legislature and Democratic governor came to a stalemate over a plan to give election workers more time to begin the process. That makes Pennsylvania a key state to watch on election night, especially considering how close the contest there ran in 2016: Trump prevailed over Hillary Clinton by 1 percentage point, and it became a critical win for him.
IF A CLOSE VOTE in one or more swing states lights an electoral fuse on election night, a political powder keg could ignite.
Razor-thin margins call for automatic recounts in a handful of states, including Pennsylvania. A recount certainly could draw out an already prolonged process and make it far longer, while a December deadline approaches for the Electoral College to convene.
Meanwhile, Trump and other Republicans have raised concerns that mail-in ballots could lead to widespread voter fraud, and the president repeatedly has warned the election could be “rigged”—potentially setting up at least some supporters to reject a Biden victory.
Trump and others point to recent cases where mail-in ballots were found discarded or thousands of ballots arrived at wrong addresses. In Kentucky, construction workers found more than 100 unopened absentee ballots thrown into a dumpster in October. Postal service officials said they found and fired the worker responsible for discarding the ballots and delivered the ballots, which had not yet been filled out, to the voters.
While officials should watch closely for any voter fraud, an even bigger problem may come with voter error: More than a half-million mail-in ballots were rejected in this year’s presidential primaries, according to an NPR analysis. That’s well above the 318,728 mail-in ballots rejected in the 2016 general election.
Officials reject many ballots because of voter mistakes that disqualify them: Sometimes voters forget to sign ballots or don’t properly fill out the paperwork. And remember those “naked ballots”? In Pennsylvania, workers must toss out ballots that voters don’t place in the envelope within the envelope.
In other cases, the U.S. Postal Service has failed to postmark some envelopes, causing those ballots to be invalidated. Some states have provisions for election officials to ask voters to correct ballot errors, but the attempts aren’t always successful.
While Democrats have pushed for voters to pursue mail-in voting, the party could end up with the most rejected ballots after the election.
Concerns over voter fraud and rejected ballots could become a recipe for post-election lawsuits. Attorneys in both parties had already filed some 200 lawsuits in dozens of states before voting began, and both parties have millions of dollars for election-related litigation.
But attorneys will face a timetable of their own: The Electoral College must meet on Dec. 14 for electors from each state officially to cast votes for the president. Stewart, the MIT professor, said courts will be under pressure to rule quickly to avoid post-election scenarios where the legal waters become even less clear. He notes that while national leaders usually get the most attention in legal battles, most of the work will be done by local officials and on the local level, following state and local laws.
But local uncertainties could potentially ripple out to national unrest. Jared Maples, the chief of New Jersey’s Homeland Security, wrote a threat assessment in October warning about the emergence of “numerous threats from domestic extremists and foreign adversaries” stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide civil unrest, and anti-government sentiment: “These threats will begin to converge with the presidential election in November in a manner not previously experienced by our nation.” A few weeks before the election, FBI agents announced they had arrested six men in an anti-government group for an alleged plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan.
While the National Guard could dispatch to cities if major turbulence erupts, much of the footwork in cities facing trouble during or after the election will fall to local police officers already facing immense pressure and budget cuts.
Shea, the police commissioner from New York City, told the Police Executive Research Forum that his force is down by about 2,600 officers, but they plan to have “all hands on deck” during the election: “Our intention is to allow people to protest whatever the outcomes are, but to have very little tolerance for property damage and threats to safety.”
Voters, election officials, police, and others should pray for clear and peaceful outcomes, but as Shea noted earlier, they should also prepare to “expect the unexpected.”
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