In the many warnings (including my own, beginning back in May) about the possibility that Donald Trump will contest an election defeat and let slip the dogs of civil strife, the center of attention is usually and justifiably Trump’s intense efforts to demonize voting by mail along with claims that ballots counted after Election Night are presumptively fraudulent. There’s already significant evidence from this summer’s primaries that Trump has succeeded far more in tainting voting by mail among his own partisans than in keeping states from making them possible (a sizable majority already allowed no-excuse-needed voting by mail before the COVID-19 pandemic hit). So it’s been plausible for a while that Trump’s strategy is to get his voters to cast ballots disproportionately in person on Election Day so as to give him an early lead that he will claim as definitive.
But Trump’s exertions aside, there is another element of the story: even if Republicans and Democrats voted in person and by mail at identical levels, Democrats tend to vote later, which in turn (particularly in elections with heavy voting by mail) means early Republican leads in close races could be fragile.
This phenomenon, known by academics as “the blue shift,” is subtle enough that it only manifests itself in highly competitive elections. But as David Graham explains in an overview of the evidence (and as I have pointed out repeatedly) it became a big deal in 2018 when Democrats won several close U.S. House races in California as late mail ballots erased Election Night GOP leads. The same thing happened in an Arizona Senate race, and Democrats made significant post-election-day gains in Florida and Georgia gubernatorial races as well, though falling short of victory.
This sort of late-breaking Democratic vote is the new, though still underappreciated, normal in national elections. Americans have become accustomed to knowing who won our elections promptly, but there are many legitimate votes that are not counted immediately every election year. For reasons that are not totally understood by election observers, these votes tend to be heavily Democratic, leading results to tilt toward Democrats as more of them are counted, in what has become known as the “blue shift.”
What explains the “blue shift”? One factor has little or nothing to do with voting by mail per se: Democratic-leaning demographic groups (particularly first-time voters) tend to cast “provisional ballots” — ballots with minor flaws that are set aside to be counted after they can be further examined — more often than others. “Provisional ballots” were invented by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to reduce the number of ballots being tossed out peremptorily by local election officials. It probably was no coincidence that in 2004 Ohio State University professor Edward Foley, the pioneer of “blue shift” researchers, noticed a big change in the composition of late-counted ballots, says Graham:
Looking at five battleground states, Foley discovered that from 1960 to 2000, there’d always been some change between the Election Night tally and the final results, usually in the hundreds or thousands of votes, and sometimes favoring either party. Starting in 2004, the size of the shifts had become reliably Democratic and significantly larger—nearly 80,000 votes in Virginia in 2008. Foley christened this effect the “blue shift.”
There could be other explanations as well. One voting-by-mail expert told me privately she suspects that Democratic get-out-the-vote drives — which habitually occur shortly before election day –—may delay maximum Democratic voting across-the-board, and produce a “blue shift” in late mail ballots. Young (and especially first-time) voters tend to tune into electoral politics late if at all. But in any event, since mail ballots are (everything else being equal) counted later than in-person ballots, the heavy expected voting by mail in November, and a slow count attributable in part to understaffed, incompetent, and even malicious state and local election operations, could combine with Trump’s polarizing demands for election day voting to enormously expand the “blue shift” to the point where there are major disparities in Election Night and subsequent returns. And that’s where things could get crazy.
A number of experts worried about electoral chaos have drawn up “meltdown” scenarios involving battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania with divided partisan control of election machinery, a history of problematic balloting and counting processes, and relatively little experience in dealing with voting by mail at the levels were are likely to see in November. Add in the phenomenon of news media being frantic to declare a victor — with certain news media being frantic to declare Trump the victor — and you can see how the president and his allies might fully implement his argument that any returns after Election Night are probably fraudulent, particularly if they flip a state from red to blue. And a lot of Americans — notably those who themselves voted for Trump — will believe Trump’s lies. After all, there’s only been one presidential election in living memory where the result that was apparent when the sun went up the day after the election was later reversed, and it took a virtual tie to produce that one.
If Trump does contest a Biden win secured, let’s say, by the Democrat clinching 270 electoral votes by pulling ahead in Michigan and Pennsylvania on the strength of mail ballots counted a week after election day, the incumbent’s path to a second term is obscure. Perhaps the most plausible scenario would be an effort by Republican-controlled legislatures in states narrowly carried by Biden to exercise their constitutional prerogative to choose presidential electors on their own. The idea that they can do so against the manifest wishes of voters or of Democratic governors is highly controversial, but as we saw in 2000, all it takes is a partisan-leaning Supreme Court to magically resolve constitutional quandaries in the “right” direction.
Even if a merciful God rescues us from a contested presidential election contests could easily extend to other states with important Senate and House races as well. The easiest way (other than a landslide that eliminates most close races) to avoid chaos caused by a combination of the “blue shift” and cynical Republican manipulation is by preparation. Ideally, that would mean billions in immediate federal assistance to speed up balloting and counting and to provide for fair and efficient adjudication of provisional ballots. At a minimum, media folk should be educated on the “blue shift” and enjoined to avoid the kind of petulant behavior they displaced in February when they were denied results on Caucus Night in Iowa. In turn media folk need to help educate the public. If it’s generally understood that early results are no better or more valid than late results, and that Election Night has lost its traditional significance and glamor, there will be little or no basis for a certain demagogue to turn a slow count into a constitutional crisis.