Many responsible journalistic outlets previewed this or that June 23 primary (held in Kentucky, New York, North Carolina and Virginia) by explaining high-stakes challenges to incumbents (especially in New York) and important tests of progressive and/or African-American strength in the Democratic Party. Perhaps the marquee contest is the Democratic primary to name an opponent to the Prince of Darkness himself, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell.
But on primary night, the answer for observers of most of the competitive contests was very simple: Wait! With a greatly inflated number of absentee mail ballots yet to be counted in New York (where they cannot be counted before June 30) and in Kentucky (where absentee ballots postmarked just today won’t be counted for days), landslides were the exception that proved the rule that it was just too early to know. Yes, in the Fifth Congressional District of Virginia, Black physician Cameron Webb was winning over a large field decisively enough that it’s clear he will face social conservative extremist Bob Good for the seat of defenestrated Republican incumbent Bob Riggelman. Similarly, in KY-04, wild-man incumbent Republican Thomas Massie, known for inspiring a Trump tweetstorm when he held up the enactment of the CARES Act, is trouncing primary opponent Todd McMurtry.
For the most part, though, observers will have to wait days if not weeks to know for sure if Charles Booker can upset Senate favorite Amy McGrath in Kentucky, or if a diverse host of progressive reformers will win House Democratic nominations in New York, highlighted by Jamaal Bowman’s challenge to Eliot Engle.
We just don’t know. And it’s an omen for what will likely happen on the evening of November 3, when early returns based on in-person Election Day voting may create a false impression that whoever leads at that point is winning.
Given the president’s incessantly-repeated argument that voting by mail is inherently fraudulent, he may claim victory based on early returns and refuse to accept defeat, if that’s what the ultimate returns dictate. His party’s congressional leaders rehearsed this attack in 2018, when late mail ballots predictably reversed the results in several key House races in California.
So tonight is as good a time as any to train media and political activists to understand that the days of knowing election returns an hour after the polls close are over. Until state and local election officials figure out how to process mail ballots much more efficiently, or until fears of voting in-person entirely subside, forced conclusions on Election Night may be not only inaccurate but wildly misleading.
The voting phase of this presidential election began with a frustrating Iowa Caucus Night in which TV talking heads expressed rage they didn’t have results to chew over or a winner to tout. As it happens, that might have been a pretty good example of what we would all endure later in the cycle, and probably on November 3 as well. Just slow down and wait.