DANIEL VAUGHAN: Previewing the upcoming chaos from mail-in voting

Tweets by the President often tend to highlight and obfuscate real problems simultaneously. Take his latest viral volley on Twitter, which said, “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”

Everyone across the political spectrum honed in on the last sentence — which is fair. The President cannot delay the election. The election date can only get changed by an act of Congress (and good luck with that). But that last part is the least important part of the tweet. Trump is right — universal mail-in voting will be a disaster. We’ve witnessed several primaries with mail-in ballots foisted upon them turn into a spectacle.

The key example is in New York, a race where the ballots just finished getting tallied from an election held one month ago — June 23rd. One month later, we’re now learning who won and what the margins were in a single primary. In an interview with the local CBS affiliate in New York, one of the candidates had a startling observation:

“We know that nearly 25% of people who actually went through the trouble of requesting a ballot, getting it, voting and dropping it in the mail will not have their ballots counted,”… The issues are wide-ranging, from where the post office stamped the ballot to voters forgetting to sign it. Not to mention some who said online that they requested an absentee ballot but never received it.

This scenario is the same one that Dave Wasserman, one of the top elections analysts in the country, points to as a possible doomsday scenario for Democrats especially. Writing for NBC, Wasserman said, “The real danger is a perfect catastrophe of administrative overload, postal delays and voter error that could lead to millions of absentee ballots not counting. And this year, unlike the past, those ballots are likely to be overwhelmingly Democratic.”

Wasserman also pointed to the NY race as a troubling sign for the fall election. Looking at the numbers, he observed, “When in-person results were tallied on Election Night, Republican Chris Jacobs led Democrat Nate McMurray, 69 percent to 29 percent. But three weeks later … Jacobs’s lead dwindled to just 51 percent to 46 percent.”

In past elections, Wasserman says that studies have shown one to four percent of absentee ballots get rejected. That number is much higher this year because states are dealing with both the virus and a massive influx of absentee ballot requests. He gave a hypothetical to prove his point:

For a moment, imagine a swing state where 42 percent of ballots are cast by mail and Biden carries them 80 percent to 20 percent, while Trump carries all other ballots 70 percent to 30 percent. If every ballot were to count, Biden would win the state 51 percent to 49 percent. But if 8 percent of absentees were ruled invalid for various reasons – and the invalidated votes were reflective of the overall absentee pool — Trump would prevail by two-hundredths of 1 percent.

Add onto that the extra layer of none of this getting settled for a month or two after election night. It would make the Florida 2000 recount look like the Sistine Chapel of elections in comparison. Forget hanging chads, hello unsigned, and incorrectly filled-out absentee ballots. A razor-thin race where votes are invalidated is not conducive to supporting the institutional integrity of national elections. 

The only way to avoid this kind of thing on election night is a blowout by either candidate. If the numbers show a runaway election, there will be no need to challenge various laws on absentee ballots. But if the race narrows, all bets are off. It doesn’t take much for things to move that direction even with Biden’s lead. A mail-in ballot debacle is high on the list of possibilities for November.

And we need to be clear about this point: no one on election night will concede, and neither side will call the election legitimate. Some people still nurse conspiracy theories that George W. Bush stole the 2000 election. It won’t take much for the media, who tells us now that Trump is destroying norms, will go full-in on destroying the legitimacy of the 2020 election if it doesn’t go how they want it to go.

That’s the stark reality we face headed into November. The proof that absentee ballots could wreak havoc on the political process is already there. While there are several states with outstanding mail-in ballot programs, they’ve had decades to fine-tune their systems to reduce errors. For the rest of the states, this situation has been thrust into their laps, and no amount of federal money or legislation can change that.

You can lock into these guarantees. The best chance you have of ensuring your vote counts in November is in-person voting. However this pans out, we’re guaranteed that Democrats and Republicans will be incentivized to declare the election illegitimate. That’s a dangerous standard to set, but it’s also the standard people on both sides have fixed now.

Or maybe we get lucky, and the election is a blowout. Somehow, though, I doubt that’s what 2020 has in store for us.