As Ballot Tabulation Gradually Concludes, the Razor-Thin Presidential Race May Be Decided By Contentious Mail-In Ballots

Everett Beals, Scarlet Staff

 At Clark, the anxiety has been palpable this week. In terms of how much stress has surrounded the results, perhaps no other political event in recent memory compares to the 2020 election cycle. On election day, some classes were cancelled – while others remained scheduled – as national politics around the presidency pervaded discussions throughout the institution, as they have for the entire semester. As evening approached, booths set up to hand out “I Voted” stickers and organize local voting were folded up as screens flickered on throughout Clark’s residence halls to watch the results trickle in.  

And trickle they did, this year, as many states dealt with unprecedented delays in their tabulation processes. Chief among the causes was the greatly increased number of mail-in ballots, including those sent as absentee. Though voting by mail is nothing new in American politics, the tremendous increase in the sheer number of ballots sent through the postal service is certainly unique to this cycle. Michael Wines of the New York Times estimated that some 80 million ballots might have been mailed in this election, up from only 33 million in 2016, per the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

In many states, the increased use of these ballots is only one of a variety of measures state governments have taken to conduct an election safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though COVID-19 has remained a major point of contention throughout the final stages of the presidential campaign, mail-in ballots have been at the epicenter of the election process since before it even began. President Donald Trump has been openly critical of the use of mail-in ballots, which he has repeatedly referred to as a voting system rife with fraud. There is little to no evidence to suggest this claim to be true, and with only very few exceptions, voting and tabulation proceeded on election night without incident.

 Some prominent Democrats, joined more numerously by observers, believed this election to be a chance for Americans to reject Mr. Trump’s presidency outright. Popular polling and forecasting aggregators, such as Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, gave the President’s Democratic challenger – former Senator, and Vice President, Joe Biden – favorable chances not just in traditional battleground states like Florida, but even in some Republican strongholds like Texas. Mr. Trump’s campaign continued, in response, to push the President’s record on the economy, immigration, and his staunch opposition to “socialism” – whether only in word, or truly in practice – as selling points to voters in these states. 

 As polls closed in Florida, a large state well-acquainted with high ballot volumes and influxes of mail-in votes, it quickly became clear that the Democratic Party’s bet on flipping these traditionally conservative states had failed. Though the margins were initially close, Mr. Trump had pulled ahead of his opponent with 3.4% more of the vote in Florida and 5.9% in Texas by 10:30 AM on Wednesday. These states always reached for the Biden campaign, though initial results by midnight on Tuesday also cast doubt on the feasibility of their preferred path, of winning back key Midwestern states – like Michigan and Wisconsin – as well as Pennsylvania in the East. At that time, Wisconsin was +4.7 for Mr. Trump, while Michigan at +10 and Pennsylvania at +11.4 both appeared to be moving in his favor.

 Many analysts, politicians, and observers less enchanted with the idea of a “blue wave” predicted such an outcome initially, with mail-in ballots playing a pivotal role in results. In fact, on election night, an October 23 interview from Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show with Vermont Senator and former Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders resurfaced on social media, wherein the Senator raised a now-familiar worry. His fear, like many, was that a close election in which Mr. Trump might take an initial lead in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania could lead to a situation where “he gets on the television and says ‘thank you Americans for reelecting me! It’s all over, have a good day.’” In these states, however, mail-in ballots – which coincidentally were used primarily by Democrats – would be counted after ballots cast in-person, a method coincidentally used primarily by Republicans. Sanders’ concern, like many other observers, was that a tightening yet uncertain race on November 3rd could enable Mr. Trump to finally take action on his months of comments on the fraudulence of mail-in ballots and claim the results of an eventual, post-Election Day win for Biden as illegitimate.  

As it would happen, these more conservative estimates were correct, though the President was less brazen in his claims than many had predicted. In fact, Mr. Trump has been mostly hesitant to claim victory outright, like his opponent, though the President has now publicly called into question the legitimacy of changing results altered by continued counting of mail-in ballots. Mr. Trump would tweet early on Wednesday morning that his campaign was “up BIG,” but that “[Democrats] are trying to STEAL the election.” He vowed to “never let them do it,” resolving that “votes cannot be cast after the “polls” are closed.” As counting continued Wednesday, Mr. Trump continually insinuated that state election commissions were “secretly dumping ballots” in Michigan, and purposefully “working hard” to make his campaign’s advantage “disappear” in Pennsylvania.

 While the President is correct in asserting that votes cannot be cast after the election has ended, it is worth noting that every state accepting mailed ballots after November 3rd only accepts those postmarked for Election Day, and not after. The response of the Republican Party to the President’s hefty accusations were mostly mixed or non-existent. Many Democrats, joined by impartial state elections officials, were quick to dismiss any such claims of fraudulence. Philadelphia City Commissioner, Al Schmidt, vowed on Wednesday morning that every vote would be counted, stating that “it’s more important that we do it right than meet artificial deadlines.” The Biden campaign also swiftly turned to this message, with Mr. Biden tweeting Wednesday that “every vote must be counted,” promising that “no one is going to take our democracy away from us, not now, not ever.” While the Trump campaign’s assertions have not been universally dismissed, retaining support from many allies, even some conservatives such as popular pundit Ben Shapiro were willing to oppose the President’s accusations of illegitimacy in the election. Shapiro tweeted on Wednesday that it was “deeply irresponsible for [the President] to say that he has” already “won the election”.

 Though a winner remained unclear even late Wednesday evening, some states which Mr. Trump won in 2016 were “flipped” by the Biden campaign, with the Associated Press calling that both Wisconsin and Michigan would award their electors to Mr. Biden. The Democrat appeared to win over Wisconsin by a razor-thin margin, ahead of his opponent only by some 20,000 votes with 98% of the state’s precincts reporting. With six crucial states still tabulating their ballots, these estimates place Mr. Biden at 253 electors, with 270 needed to win the Electoral College. Though many analysts believed that Pennsylvania was most likely to become the final tipping point, including those at the aforementioned FiveThirtyEight, it now appears that the Biden campaign’s simplest path to victory would be found in winning Arizona and Nevada, taking him exactly to 270 electors.

 Pennsylvania, like most of the remaining states with incomplete results, delayed the process of counting mailed ballots until November 3rd, causing their counts to take days longer than the rest of the nation. As these additional votes are tabulated, Mr. Trump’s lead has shrunk considerably. The President’s 10-point advantage from 10:30 AM on Wednesday morning was cut to just 2.9 points by 10 PM Wednesday evening. It is these votes on which the result of the Presidential election may hinge, as races tighten before complete tabulation not just in Pennsylvania, but also in more Republican-leaning states such as North Carolina and Georgia.

 It is uncertain when an official victor might be declared, though observers from both sides appeared to be most closely following polling results in the Southwestern states of Arizona and Nevada, where Biden presently retains a thin advantage. Though legal action has yet to take place, the Trump campaign declared their intention to contest a number of the results in key states, calling for a recount in Wisconsin and suing to halt counts in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Mr. Biden’s campaign responded Wednesday that they would assemble “the largest election security effort ever” to ensure that every vote is counted. Mr. Biden, appearing to wish to reaffirm public confidence in full election integrity, tweeted that “Donald Trump doesn’t get to decide the outcome of this election – the American people do.”


**Editors Note: This article was written on November 4th, prior to the election results.