This sort of late-breaking Democratic vote is the new, though still underappreciated, normal in national elections. Americans have become accustomed to knowing who won our elections promptly, but there are many legitimate votes that are not counted immediately every election year. For reasons that are not totally understood by election observers, these votes tend to be heavily Democratic, leading results to tilt toward Democrats as more of them are counted, in what has become known as the “blue shift.” In most cases, the blue shift is relatively inconsequential, changing final vote counts but not results. But in others, as in 2018, it can materially change the outcome.
Although it is slowly dawning on the press and the electorate that Election Day will be more like Election Week or Election Month this year, thanks to coronavirus-related complications, the blue shift remains obscure. But the effect could be much larger and far more consequential in 2020, as Democrats embrace voting by mail more enthusiastically than Republicans. If the public isn’t prepared to wait patiently for the final results, and if politicians cynically exploit the shifting tallies to cast doubt on the integrity of the vote, the results could be catastrophic.
Imagine that as November 3, 2020, ticks away, President Donald Trump holds a small lead in one or more key states such as Pennsylvania—perhaps 10,000 or 20,000 votes—and seems to have enough states in his column to eke out an Electoral College win. Trump declares victory, taunts Joe Biden, and prepares for a second term. But the reported results on Election Night omit tens of thousands of votes, including provisional ballots and uncounted mail-in votes. Over the coming days, as those votes are counted, Trump’s lead dwindles and eventually disappears. By the end of the week or early the next, Biden emerges as the clear victor in Pennsylvania—and with that win, captures the race for the presidency.
If that’s how things unfold, Trump is unlikely to take defeat snatched from the jaws of victory graciously. He has already spent months attempting to delegitimize the election system. So imagine that he instead cries fraud and insists he’s the target of a criminal Democratic coup. What if he encourages his supporters to take to the streets, where there are violent clashes between partisans? He might even urge the Republican-led Pennsylvania General Assembly to submit a slate of Trump-backing electors, citing the Election Day returns, even if the full tally clearly shows Keystone State voters chose Biden.
The hypothetical of a blue shift reversing the early projected winner is the “nightmare scenario,” according to the election-law expert Rick Hasen. Either Trump or Biden could win by a sufficient margin to make the result clear on Election Night; it’s also possible that multiple states might see a decisive post–November 3 blue shift, creating even more chaos.
“You don’t need to worry about Russia,” Edward Foley, a law professor at Ohio State, told me. “Simply anxiety over a blue shift and willingness to litigate about it and fight about it could cause a raging contestation over a presidential election.”
The blue shift is the product of two major developments in elections over the past 70 years. First, Americans began to expect that they would have results on Election Night itself. In the first national elections, it was impossible to gather results from many different jurisdictions promptly, and even then, there was no way to instantaneously deliver the results to the public. Electronic communications began to change that. Abraham Lincoln learned he’d won in 1860 by staking out the telegraph office until the wee hours of the morning. But when the races were close, or the votes were slow to be tallied, even instantaneous communications couldn’t deliver a result that hadn’t yet been determined. Nearly a century after Lincoln, in 1948, CBS News’s Edward Murrow signed off without being able to give the result of the close election between Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey. (The Chicago Daily Tribune was not so patient.)
The second change was the introduction of a technology that allowed television networks to project who would win the election, sometimes even before the last polling places had closed. In 1952, for the first time, CBS and NBC each experimented with using computers to analyze the early returns, and by 1960, they were a key part of the election coverage. Television became central to Americans’ Election Night rituals, and the networks’ projections came to stand in for actual results. Strictly speaking, there are no election results until boards of elections certify them. Practically, Americans usually assume that whatever the TV tells them is fact.
“From a legal perspective, there are no results on Election Night, and there never have been,” Foley told me. “The only thing that has ever existed on Election Night are projected results that the media has helpfully provided to its audiences.”