Initial returns in the special election in California’s 25th Congressional District (held to fill the seat of Democratic Representative Katie Hill, who resigned after a sex scandal) showed Republican Mike Garcia with a solid 12-point lead over Democrat Christy Smith (the two candidates will face each other again in November for a full House term). But none of the major election-analysis services called the race until Smith decided to concede Wednesday afternoon, because a large but unknown quantity of mail ballots were (and are) still out; indeed, many were probably postmarked on election day and won’t be received until later in the week. In 2018, in California as a whole, 43 percent of the votes ultimately cast were not in the morning-after tabulations, and the proportion of mail ballots in this special election (for which all registered voters were sent a mail ballot due to an executive order from Governor Gavin Newsom) could be even higher. Democrats almost always do better in late mail-ballot returns. Garcia didn’t claim victory until after Smith conceded, either.
But that didn’t deter one interested observer from making the call at 5:58 AM:
He was right about Wisconsin, an unsurprising result in a Congressional district he carried by 20 points in 2016 (Tiffany won by 14 points). But he clearly jumped the gun on the California race, and that’s a troubling sign for November. In much of the country, a spike in voting by mail is going to slow returns, and if the presidential race is as close as we think it will be, there may be a lot of states where the outcome leans one way on election night — but without enough votes being counted to make an accurate call. If the president of the United States is out there calling states for himself on Election Night — and almost certainly alleging fraud if he later falls behind — you could have a recipe for a contested presidential election and possibly civil unrest.
Trump and other leading Republicans (who claimed without evidence to suspect fraud in California when they lost early leads in several House districts in 2018) need to be challenged instantly if they start claiming victory early on the evening of November 3 in states or down-ballot contests that the experts consider too close or early to call. It may not deter them, but the idea that late Democratic comebacks in the returns inherently means ballot-box stuffing or voter fraud is too plainly hammerheaded to stand unrefuted.
This post has been updated throughout.