The Morning Jolt


Vote-Counting Begins in Earnest

A voter casts his ballot at the Milwaukee Public Library’s Washington Park location on the first day of in-person voting in Milwaukee, Wisc., October 20, 2020. (Bing Guan/Reuters)

On the menu today: Why those ominous predictions that we won’t know who won the 2020 presidential election for days, or perhaps weeks after Election Day may not pan out; some back-and-forth decision-making from the Trump campaign; and a special request.

Your State May Already Be Counting Your Vote!

You may have heard it could be a while before all the votes are counted after Election Day. That . . . may not turn out to be the case. At least three of the most pivotal states in the presidential race are already tabulating the early votes.

Thirteen states allow election officials to begin counting absentee or mail-in ballots before Election Day, and those states include Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina. In fact, if you had to pick a half-dozen states that could determine the outcome of the presidential election, those three would make just about everyone’s list.

In Arizona, just under 900,000 people have already voted, and state law permitted counting to begin yesterday, October 20. The law is the same in North Carolina, where more than 1.8 million people already voted. In Florida, where more than 3 million people (!) already voted, state law allowed counting to begin October 12.

In Texas, certain large localities are allowed to start a little early. The statute reads, “when the polls open on Election Day; in a jurisdiction with more than 100,000 people, counting can begin at the end of the early voting by personal appearance period.” The early voting period in Texas ends October 30.

Other states allow similar processing of the ballots, readying them for counting, but not actual counting. Under Nevada law: “Not earlier than 4 working days before the election, the county clerk shall deliver the ballots to the absent ballot central counting board to be processed and prepared for counting pursuant to the procedures established by the Secretary of State to ensure the confidentiality of the prepared ballots until after the polls have closed.” In Nevada, more than 264,000 people have voted so far.

In Ohio, where 1.2 million people have already voted, the statute permits “scanning the absent voter’s ballot by automatic tabulating equipment, if the equipment used by the board of elections permits an absent voter’s ballot to be scanned without tabulating or counting the votes on the ballots scanned.”

In many states, registered Democrats are returning absentee ballots in higher numbers than registered Republicans, and in polls, self-identified Democrats are expressing much greater interest in voting by mail or voting early than self-identified Republicans. If the early vote is mostly Democrats, and the Election Day turnout is mostly Republicans, this will have two effects on early perceptions of who is “winning.”

First, the early “waves” of tallies may well look like a Democratic landslide, if counting begins with the previously tabulated early votes. Then, as the Election Day tallies are added, the numbers will gradually (or perhaps not-so-gradually) shift towards Republicans.

Second, organizations that conduct on-the-ground interviews for exit polls may find their numbers point to a Republican landslide.

With the head start, and the potentially lower total number of ballots cast on Election Day because of all of the early votes, states such as Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina should be able to count their votes relatively quickly. (We can probably throw in Ohio, too.) And if we know who won those key states, along with the roughly 35 to 40 states that aren’t that competitive, we will have a good sense of which candidate is closer to 270 electoral votes.

With all of that said, several other key states do not allow officials to start counting ballots until Election Day, including Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Some states have specific times written into the statute. In Georgia (1.6 million early votes so far), Pennsylvania (just over 1 million early votes so far), and Wisconsin (915,000 early votes so far), officials are not allowed to start counting ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day. In Maine and New Hampshire, no counting begins until the polls close.

News organizations are more cautious about declaring winners than they used to be; you may recall the television networks forgetting that Florida has two time zones and calling the state for Al Gore while voters were still casting ballots in the Panhandle. Looking back four years ago, the Associated Press called Ohio for Trump at 10:36 p.m. eastern, Florida at 10:50 p.m., and North Carolina at 11:11 p.m. It’s easy to forget now, but the AP didn’t call Arizona for the president until two days later.

Four years ago, with fewer early votes to count, the AP called Georgia at 11:33 p.m., Iowa two minutes after midnight, Pennsylvania at 1:35 a.m., and Wisconsin at 2:29 p.m., triggering the AP flash that Trump had just been elected the 45th President of the United States. Michigan was so close — 10,704 votes, or less than a quarter of a percentage point — that Trump wasn’t certified the winner for three weeks.

Pennsylvania is likely to be the really thorny one this year, as that state previously had strict rules about absentee voting, which means many Pennsylvanians will be voting by mail for the first time. The fear is that significant numbers of voters will turn in their ballots “naked” — that is, without the required secrecy envelope — and, in accordance with state law, those ballots won’t be counted. In past Pennsylvania elections, about 5 percent of voters didn’t use the secrecy envelope and their ballots were disqualified. One of the reasons you can’t write off Trump’s chances of winning the state is that if more Democrats vote by mail, it’s likely more Democrats will forget to use the secrecy envelope. Republicans who are voting in-person on Election Day won’t face that issue.

As of this morning, the Keystone State has 1,028,431 returned ballots — 749,016 from registered Democrats, 190,668 from registered Republicans. If you assume 5 percent, across the board, don’t use the security envelopes, that means 37,451 Pennsylvania Democrats think they cast a legal ballot but didn’t, while only 9,534 Pennsylvania Republicans think they cast a legal ballot but didn’t.

The thing is, even if you imagine a scenario where Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin take forever to count their ballots . . . if the quicker-counting states break solidly in favor of one candidate, Biden can reach 270 electoral votes, or Trump can be knocking on the door of that threshold.

I could go through a lot of scenarios in the Electoral College map, but the general gist is, if Biden wins Florida and its 29 electoral votes, he has a lot of ways to each 270. If he wins Ohio and its 18 electoral votes, he has almost as many ways. North Carolina has 15 electoral votes, and Arizona has eleven, and not winning either or both of them would greatly complicate Trump’s path to 270.

If Trump wins Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio, and you give him the rest of the traditional red states, that puts the president at around 237 electoral votes (I say “around” because we can argue about Nebraska’s Second Congressional District and Maine’s Second Congressional District.) The president’s fate would be in the hands of the slow-counting states. If Georgia and Iowa come in red, Trump is at 259 electoral votes — and his reelection would depend upon winning one of the big three from last cycle, Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin.

Just What Is the Game Plan Here?

Pretty soon, the arguments about whether there was a method to the madness will be resolved.

Tomorrow night, Americans will watch the second and perhaps final presidential debate of the 2020 election. If Trump wants to debate Joe Biden, then he should go debate Joe Biden. If he doesn’t want to debate Biden, then he shouldn’t. If the president is confident that he can mop the floor with him, and that his opponent is a drooling imbecile, Trump should be itching for any and all opportunities to draw that contrast before as may viewers as possible.

Thus, it didn’t make much sense for Trump to withdraw from the second debate, objecting that the debate will be held virtually, and then complain that the Biden camp won’t agree to their offer to hold the debate on another date. If Trump can beat Biden in a debate on stage, he can beat him when they are in separate television studios. He can complain about the moderator and the debate commission aren’t being fair and refuse to participate, or he can get out there and make the case for a second term. The moment the Trump campaign refused to do the virtual-only debate, they gave their counterparts an escape hatch to avoid a third debate entirely.

Last week, Trump counter-programmed Biden’s town hall on ABC with his own event on NBC and its cable affiliates, apparently convinced he would garner much higher ratings and effectively win the night in lieu of a debate. And then Biden actually attracted a slightly higher audience, 14.1 million total viewers on ABC alone, while Trump brought in 13.5 million across NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC combined. By comparison, 73 million people watched part of the first Trump-Biden debate.

If President Trump wants to be interviewed by Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes, then he should do the interview. If he doesn’t want to do the interview, then he shouldn’t do it. But it doesn’t make sense to grant Stahl the interview, and then apparently storm away after 45 minutes, and then tweet about her not wearing a mask and threaten to release the interview himself.

No doubt, someone out there will assure us this is another signature display of three-dimensional or four-dimensional chess, and that the few remaining undecided voters out there were just waiting for a leader to take a bold stand against the longstanding national menace that is Leslie Stahl.

Meanwhile the president’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee worked together to raise more than $1.5 billion this cycle and only had $251 million in the bank at the start of September. Does this look like a campaign that spent more than a billion? Does it feel like Brad Parscale’s “Death Star” juggernaut campaign is fully operational?

ADDENDUM: If you’ve preordered Hunting Four Horsemen already, thank you. If you haven’t . . . today is a good day to do it.

If you pre-order a copy and tweet me a screenshot of your preorder to @jimgeraghty, I will select at least one winner and send you a copy of Between Two Scorpions, inscribed however you like. If you’ve already got a copy, you can give an inscribed copy for a friend. (The holidays are coming!) Or you may keep the inscribed one for yourself and give your other copy away. It’s your life, make your own decisions. And I may pick more than one winner!

I can’t get into all of the details because I don’t really understand all of the details, but apparently some high mucky-mucks at Amazon are considering something about Hunting Four Horsemen tomorrow, which means the preorder numbers today will be really important. I understand Between Two Scorpions will be a “Kindle Unlimited Feature Book” next month, which helps bring it to a wider audience. (If you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, you get access to more than a million titles, current issues of magazines, unlimited audiobooks, etc.) If you’ve been thinking about preordering — and we’re talking a couple of bucks here — today is a terrific day to do it!

As Bartles and James used to say: “Thank you for your support.