What to look for on election night

The election system in the US is under attack as Trump seeks to preemptively discredit the process so that in the event that he loses, he can claim that the system was rigged against him, despite the manifestly obvious fact that he and the Republicans have gone to great extents to disenfranchise those groups of people whom they think might vote against him (people of color, the poor, and the young) and tilt things in favor of those whom he thinks like him (old, white, religious, suburban, and well-to-do).

Given that the pandemic has resulted in much greater interest in voting by mail, we may be faced with a situation in which the result will not be known on election night because mail-in ballots take longer to count. In some states, mail-in ballots begin to be counted as they come in but in eight states, state law requires that the ballots cannot even be processed (i.e., envelopes opened, signatures validated and so on) until on election day. This website gives the rules for each state. Not knowing the result on election night is not really a problem since the transition time in the US between administrations is close to three months since the election is on November 3 and the new president is sworn in on January 20th. So there is plenty of time to get things right.

This website gives the timeline for all the processes that take place in-between those two dates. The key events are:

December 14, 2020—when the members of the electoral college vote in their States according to the results of the November 3 election.

December 23, 2020—electoral votes arrive in the Congress

January 6, 2021—Congress counts the electoral votes

As long as no one declares victory before the results are incontrovertibly determined, there should be no problem with not knowing the results on election night.

But it is clear what Trump’s strategy is. He is hoping that the votes that are counted on election night and the totals that come in early will be in his favor so that he can yell foul is there is a so-called ‘red mirage’, where election night has results favoring him but the mail-in votes shift the result in favor of Joe Biden. Remember that although the media tends to ‘call’ the results of each state, those are projections using statistical models based on past history. Those are not always reliable and this election is definitely not of the norm and so one hopes that the media exercises restraint and not call any results too early because of the large number of mail-in ballots that makes past projection models unreliable. I am however, not too sanguine about this. Each major media outlet wants to be first and thus hold on to their audience and this results in great temptation to jump the gun.

On The Media looked at the potential problems on election night and how they might be avoided. On the show Walter Shapiro of the Brennan Center said that the ‘red mirage’ scenario is unlikely to occur. He also said that on election night, the networks should not show the percentage of precincts reporting along with the candidate totals. That is misleading because those numbers only represent in-person voting. Instead they should show the votes counted as a percentage of the total cotes case, which will be a far lower but much more meaningful number of where things actually stand.

As the show said, early results can not only be wrong, they can wrongly frame the media narrative because pundits are so anxious to identify trends based on the flimsiest of evidence, and that wrong narrative can continue longer after it has been debunked.

Media narratives that bubble up on Election Night tend to stick even after the sun rises on a new day. Like when Democratic strategist James Carville and CNN host Jake Tapper both declared on midterm Election Night 2018 that the “blue wave” had failed to materialize. Republican pundits and politicians ran with this narrative, despite the fact that late-counted ballots delivered big wins for Democrats in the following days and weeks. Democratic voters, it became clear, turned out huge numbers, even though they didn’t win the Senate.

The way results turned out in 2018 must be why Trump is so determined to bad mouth the mail-in ballots and claim that they are somehow not real votes.

There may be one way of projecting the results almost immediately though I hope it will never be used. I have written before about how the major tech companies have collected so much data on us that they the know our behaviors and preferences down to the minutest detail. They almost definitely know whom we are likely to vote for and campaigns use this information to micro-target their pitches to voters. The only unknown is whether we voted at all. But that too is potentially knowable since our phones give away our location at all times. All it would take is for those companies to track our movements on election day to see if it coincides with our polling place. That would almost guarantee that we had voted.

When almost all the votes were cast in person on election day, that method would work very well. With the large number of mail-in ballots expected this year, the question is whether the tech companies have access to who are the people who mailed those in. I do not know the answer to that but if they do, then they should be able to call the election as soon as the polls close and before even the first vote is counted.

It may sound far-fetched but is becoming increasingly feasible.


  1. jenorafeuer says

    I’m suddenly reminded of Max Headroom, where each candidate had a TV station they campaigned on, and the election results were determined by Nielsen ratings.

    Given the relationship between Trump and Fox News, that’s not as far off as we like to think.

  2. mnb0 says

    “The election system in the US is under attack”
    That’s actually good news, because it’s corrupt anyway.
    Somewhere I read that almost always political decisions favour the 1% and big companies even if the majority of the electorate wants otherwise. There is not that much difference with Russian elections.
    Voting in the USA to a great extent means legitimating a non-democratic political system.

  3. consciousness razor says


    Somewhere I read that almost always political decisions favour the 1% and big companies even if the majority of the electorate wants otherwise.

    I’m familiar with this paper: Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens (pdf).

    The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

    Living here, mostly in poor rural areas, it isn’t surprising at all to me. I know a lot of academics are part of that elite bubble and don’t seem to realize how oblivious they generally are (or don’t want to admit it), but it’s still kind of difficult to imagine how anyone could seriously believe otherwise.

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