The fulcrum of Donald Trump’s effort to steal the 2020 election was his claim, late on Election Night, that he had already won because he led in early returns in many key states. He was relying on a highly predictable phenomenon known as the “Red Mirage”: Since Republicans tended to cast the votes counted first on Election Night (mostly in-person Election Day votes), while Democrats were more likely to vote by mail, Republicans would have an artificial lead early in the counting. Trump encouraged that disparity by attacking voting by mail all year, and then arguing (with zero evidence) that mail ballots were somehow tainted. Cynical and premeditated as Trump’s scam was, it was effective among many GOP voters used to seeing elections called quickly. It probably undermined confidence in the electoral system as much as anything Trump said or did later.
This year, there are plenty of election-denying heirs of Trump on the ballot, who are perfectly capable of playing the same games he did with the absolutely legal and unexceptional vote-counting process. It may not occur on the scale of 2020 since (a) not as many people will be voting by mail given post-pandemic conditions, and (b) the president of the United States has not been telling his supporters for months which voting method to use. But in close, tense races involving MAGA candidates, don’t be surprised to hear premature claims of victory followed by unsupported allegations of fraud or ballot-box stuffing.
The states where this is most likely to happen are battleground states with substantial voting by mail where Republican legislators have banned election officials from processing mail ballots until Election Day (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) or soon thereafter (Michigan). Mail ballots must be opened, verified, then sorted for tabulation. Early processing bans mean these ballots won’t be counted immediately, until after the “Red Mirage” of Election Day voters appears. As Nick Corasaniti of the New York Times recently observed, these are states crackling with partisanship and bristling with MAGA hostility to Democratic voters. Thus efforts to change the mail ballot processing windows have been held hostage to voting restrictions that Democrats won’t accept:
Delays in the counting of mail ballots this year could again give a misleading impression of a large Republican advantage in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin on election night, even if it is not as skewed of a picture as it was in 2020.
There are close Senate races in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and close gubernatorial races in Michigan and Wisconsin.
The “Red Mirage” is less likely to occur in states with long histories of voting by mail and liberal polices on early ballot processing, notably Arizona and Florida, which typically produce fast counts on Election Night. And there could even be a “Blue Mirage” in Georgia and North Carolina, states that quickly count the early in-person votes that Deep South Democrats tend to favor. In Georgia, early in-person votes as of November 2 were running at nearly ten times the level of votes by mail. In North Carolina the ratio is more than ten-to-one.
Whether or not there is an early “mirage” sufficient to justify a victory claim, certain states are going to have very slow counts that give rise to conspiracy theories. That is particularly prone to happen in the 19 states that allow the counting of mail ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by varying later dates. These include the 2022 Senate or gubernatorial battleground states of Alaska, Kansas, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. States with both universal and quasi-universal voting by mail and liberal deadlines for receiving them often don’t confirm results for many days after Election Day. This is particularly a Pacific Coast phenomenon now that California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii are universal voting by mail states; Alaska has a generous mail-ballot deadline and ranked-choice voting. If control of the House depends on the outcome of the nine competitive contests in California, the three in Oregon, the two in Washington, or the at-large race in Alaska, it could take a while.
An additional wrinkle in the all- or mostly mail ballot states with extended deadline for receipt of mail ballots is the “Blue Shift” that often occurs in late mail ballots, disproportionately cast by Democratic voting groups and typically counted last. In the 2018 midterms, several California House seats where Republicans led in the wee hours of Election Night ultimately went Democratic, leading to some conspiracy-theory muttering by Republicans that provided a model for Trump in 2020.
In the end it’s close contests that most create the temptation for poorly supported victory claims or retroactive undocumented election theft allegations. Democratic candidates who don’t want to be the object of such chicanery would be best advised to win big.
More on the 2022 midterms
- Are Democrats the Party of Low-Turnout Elections Now?
- New Midterms Data Reveals Good News for Democrats in 2024
- The Return of the Emerging Democratic Majority?