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Skidmore College

Skidmore College Post-Election Forum

To help members of the Skidmore community better understand the ongoing process and discuss what it might mean for the country, Skidmore faculty will hold a post-election forum at 6:30 p.m. (EST) Wednesday, Nov. 4 to address questions and offer informed perspectives. All members of the community are invited to join the forum and submit questions about the election via this form now and during the event. Questions received in advance may be answered and added to the list below, which will be updated throughout the day. Christopher Mann, assistant professor of political science, has provided answers to questions posted here.

Question form

Michigan does not allow local election officials to begin processing mail ballots until the day before the election (Monday, Nov 2). This wasn’t a problem in past elections because the number of mail ballots was small. However, Michigan changed its laws to allow anyone to request a ballot without an excuse in the 2020 election. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a dramatic increase in the number of mail ballots cast this year, and it takes time for election officials to process mail ballots. Mail ballots in Michigan must be received by election officials on Election Day, so the MI Secretary of State has projected that all ballots will be processed and counted by Friday, November 6th. [Nov 4 2020 @ 1:00 pm]

Pennsylvania does not allow local election officials to begin processing mail ballots until Election Day (Tuesday, Nov 3), and does not require it until the day after Election Day (Wednesday, Nov 4). Several counties did not start processing mail ballots until Wednesday morning. This wasn’t a problem in past elections because the number of mail ballots was small. However, Pennsylvania changed its laws to allow anyone to request a ballot without an excuse in the 2020 election. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a dramatic increase in the number of mail ballots cast this year. In addition, Pennsylvania made a change to allow mail ballots postmarked on Election Day but received up to three days later (Friday, Nov 6) to be counted. This extension has been challenged in court, and the Supreme Court may hear a case to consider whether ballots received after Election Day will be counted. [Nov 4 2020 @ 1:00 pm]

UPDATE: Wisconsin is still counting remaining ballots but multiple news media outlets project Biden/Harris will win the Electoral College votes in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin does not allow local election officials to begin processing mail ballots until Election Day (Tuesday, Nov 3). Although WI has allowed no-excuse mail ballots for many years, this wasn’t a problem in past elections because the number of mail ballots was small. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a dramatic increase in the number of mail ballots cast this year. Mail ballots must be received by Election Day in Wisconsin, although there have already been several court cases about whether postmarks are acceptable. [Nov 4 2020 @ 2:35 pm]

Processing refers to local election officials opening the outer mailing envelope containing a mail ballot, checking the inner envelope for the voter’s signature, witness signature (in states with this requirement), and other required information. For valid ballots, local election officials then open in the inner envelope and put the ballot in a machine to be counted. 

Counting or tabulation refers to tallying votes cast. For all ballots, counting occurs after ballots are processed. For early in-person voting, counting usually occurs on Election Day. For in-person Election Day voting, this occurs at the end of Election Day. Sometimes counting for Election Day ballots is done at each precinct and sometimes it is done at a central election office. For mail ballots, counting is done after ballots are processed. [Nov 4 2020 @ 1:00 pm]    

 

Like all aspects of election procedures, the rules for recounts are set by state law and therefore vary from state to state. Many states have provisions for automatic recounts based on the final vote count being within a defined percentage. Some states allow a candidate to request a recount, although often only if the margin is within a specified range. Therefore, it seems likely that we will see recounts in one or more close states. The recount procedures also vary, so look for more information here about states as the prospect of recounts becomes more concrete. 

Based on statements by the manager of the Trump/Pence campaign, Wisconsin appears headed to a recount unless Biden/Harris’s lead expands beyond the 1 percentage point threshold for recounts. More information here. [Nov 4 2020 @ 2:35 pm]

Under Wisconsin election law, a recount can be requested if the margin between candidates is less than one percentage point. As of early afternoon on Wednesday, Nov 4th when multiple news organizations projected Biden/Harris to win Wisconsin, the margin is within one percentage point. The manager of the Trump/Pence campaign said the campaign would request a recount. The recount cannot begin until the initial count is completed and certified, and therefore will not even start for at least a week. [Nov 4 2020 @ 2:35 pm]

A quick bit of history: Back in the dark ages (i.e. 20+ years ago before current Skidmore students were born), nearly everyone voted in their precinct on Election Day. News organizations reported results using the “percentage of precincts reporting results”. If a state had a 1000 precincts and election officials had reported the results for 730 precincts, 73% of precincts were reporting. 

With so many ballots cast by mail and early in person, the precinct metric no longer works to convey how many ballots remain to be counted. Instead, news organizations estimate the total number of ballots to be counted using information from election officials about mail ballots, early voting, and turnout on Election Day. This estimate is the denominator in the percentage of the “estimated vote”. The numerator is the number of votes tallied. 

But beware that the “estimated vote” is exactly what it says: an estimate. There may be more or fewer ballots to be counted. If so, it means the news organizations made a mistake. Nothing more.  [Nov 4 2020 @ 2:35 pm]

The Democratic tilt to mail ballots is somewhat unique to the 2020 election, and certainly the magnitude of the Democratic tilt to mail ballots is unique to 2020. Democratic candidates and left-leaning civic organizations encouraged voters to request mail ballots as a safe way to vote after the COVID-19 pandemic severely disrupted primaries in the late spring and early summer. Starting in early summer, President Trump began attacking mail ballots as fraudulent. The result is that many more Democrats are using mail ballots in the 2020 election. (Note: Professor Mann worked with several non-partisan organizations encouraging voters to request mail ballots.) [Nov 4 2020 @ 2:55 pm]

The “red mirage” and “blue wave” are names for a pattern in past elections that the first results reported on Election Night would be more favorable to Republicans (red mirage) but shift towards Democrats as vote counting continues (blue wave). Political scientists have suggested several explanations for this phenomenon: 1) smaller population jurisdictions are likely to lean Republican and likely to report results sooner than larger, more Democratic jurisdictions; 2) Democrats tend to return mail ballots later so they are counted later in the process. Depending on the state, both explanations are probably at work.

More broadly, there is a “blue wave” in the Presidential popular vote because the tendency of Democrats to return mail ballots late and blue leaning states using postmark on Election Day as their deadline so that ballots arrive after Election Day. Notably, California is very Democratic, has high mail ballot use (all registered voters in CA were sent a mail ballot in 2020), and allows ballots postmarked on Election Day but returned up to two weeks later to be counted. 

The “blue mirage” is a new term in the election lexicon based on results from mail ballots and early voting being released first by many states on Election Night. In 2020, Democrats returned their ballots much earlier and over-performed in early voting in many places. 

The “blue mirage” occurred in many states in 2020 but was extremely short-lived in almost every case, usually an hour or two, before in-person Election Day voting returns made it disappear.

The “red mirage” and “blue wave” phenomenon occurred in some states, most notably swing states like Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Thus, it is important to understand that this is normal and expected. It is also why President Trump’s claim of victory based on partial results was deeply troubling to many observers. [Nov 4 2020 @ 3:07 pm]

President Trump’s statement on Election Night that he believes he won means exactly that: he believes he won. The President has no role in US elections (outside of signing bills sent to him/her by Congress in routine law-making). State and local election officials administer elections and only they have any binding authority over the process. Moreover, they won’t certify election results until days or weeks from now - just the same as every election. There are detailed procedures for counting, auditing, and certifying election results before there is a legal winner. [Nov 4 2020 @ 3:10 pm]

Vote counting is unlikely to finish in the pivotal swing states until Friday, Nov 6th, and perhaps later if states that accept mail ballots postmarked on Election Day are pivotal to the Electoral College outcome. The popular vote totals will continue to change well into next week as states finish counting ballots. 

However, the completion of ballot counting may not (likely will not) be the end of the process. In close contests, there are likely to be recounts. There are also likely to be legal challenges about vote counting procedures, classes of ballots, or even individual ballots that delay final determination of the winner in close states. 

The key date for the Presidential election is December 8th, when states are required to certify the electors for the Electoral College process. [Nov 4 2020 @ 1:00 pm]

This answer is similar to the Presidential contest regarding vote counting and recounts. However, there is no deadline for settling the election. The recount in the 2008 US Senate election in Minnesota was not resolved until late June 2009. 

In addition, Georgia requires elections to be won with a majority. The special election to complete former Senator Johnny Isackson’s term had no candidate exceed 50%, so that Senate race will be decided in a run-off election on January 5th. The other Senate race in Georgia could also go to a run-off if neither candidate gets 50%. [Nov 4 2020 @ 1:00 pm]

This answer is similar to the US Senate outcome. [Nov 4 2020 @ 1:00 pm]