Be prepared for Election Day results to change
Pennsylvania is shaping up to be the most important state in the 2020 presidential election. It’s likely the tipping point state, and either candidate’s chance of winning the election strongly depends on winning Pennsylvania.
President Trump told his supporters: “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.” That’s a remarkable statement from any president, but especially one whose approval rating has been in the low 40% range for his entire presidency.
Furthermore, Trump has been consistently well behind his opponent in the average of national polls since tracking by the respected FiveThirtyEight organization began in March. Biden is also currently predicted to win Pennsylvania by almost 7%.
On Sept. 23, under questioning from a reporter, Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. “We’re going to have to see what happens.” That’s an alarming statement by any measure. Failure to respect the outcome of a presidential election could lead to massive civil unrest. Trump has laid the groundwork to cast doubt on the election by claiming, without evidence, that voting by mail will result in widespread fraud.
Further heightening tensions, poll workers in Pennsylvania will not be legally allowed to count ballots until Election Day morning, and it’s estimated it will take at least several days to count the ballots.
The following are facts. About twice as many Democrats as Republicans have requested mail-in ballots. And, of course, the overwhelming majority of voters registered to a party will vote for their party’s candidate.
So what can voters expect to see as Pennsylvania’s votes get counted?
To explore this question, we put together a simple model. We assume:
• Six million Pennsylvanians vote, similar to 2016;
• Fifty percent of votes cast for Biden and 25% of those for Trump are cast by mail (roughly consistent with known mail-in ballot requests by party);
• It will take four days to count the mail-in ballots, and 25% get counted each day;
• The true result of the election based on all the ballots is a 5% margin of victory for Biden.
Note: We are not saying that Trump is going to lose. Currently FiveThirtyEight gives him about a 1 in 8 chance of winning. And while those odds are not good, they’re not insignificant. Trump beat the odds in 2016, when FiveThirtyEight gave him a 1 in 3 chance. This is a model.
We’re just posing the question: If these assumptions are true, what will the vote count look like as the mail-in votes slowly get counted?
At the end of election night, after only a quarter of the mail-in ballots are counted, Trump leads by nearly 350,000 voters (8%). But wait — there are still 1.7 million legal ballots to be counted.
The picture changes as votes get counted. By the end of day two’s tally, Trump’s lead is only about 130,000 votes. After day three, Biden is leading by 84,000 votes (1.6%), and with the final count Biden wins by 300,000 votes.
We can easily model other outcomes in our spreadsheet. Under our assumptions, Trump squeezing out a final 1% victory (like he did in 2016) would require a 14% lead after day one. For Biden to appear to have a slight lead after day one would require a whopping 14% final margin. This is beyond the most optimistic Biden poll (13%) of which we are aware.
President Trump may declare victory after the first day’s result. Don’t you believe it.
The very survival of our democratic institutions may depend on our ability to wait for the votes to be counted. Most importantly, regardless of who ultimately wins, a swing toward Biden as mail-in ballots get counted is not in any way a sign of election shenanigans. It’s a virtual certainty given the large percentage of mail-in voting and the markedly greater inclination of Democrats to vote by mail.
Finally, this potential crisis of faith in our elections can easily be averted. Our Republican-controlled legislature needs to pass a clean bill to allow mail-in ballots to be counted starting at least three days before the election. That way we can know the real results on Election Day.
Fritz Walker is a South Whitehall Township resident who is active in Pennsylvania electoral reform advocacy through Fair Districts PA. Mike Betker is an electrical engineer who resides in Upper Macungie Township.
An official mail-in ballot for the 2020 General Election in the United States, from Delaware County.