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Three possible scenarios for Election Night 2020 and how you can make politics better

It’s 11 p.m. on Election Night for the pandemic-disrupted presidential election.
Four Kansas political observers preview what might happen.

What to Expect on Election Night and What it Means for Democracy

Four Kansas political observers preview what might happen on election night. During our launch event for the election edition of the Kansas Leadership Center…

It’s finally here. After all that’s happened, Election Night 2020 is now upon us.

So now what? This truth is, no matter what the polls or prognosticators say, nobody truly knows what the end result of the pandemic-disrupted presidential election will be. But there are three likely scenarios that are worth taking note of before the vote counting commences for the Nov. 3 General Election.

Earlier this fall, I interviewed four Kansas political observers over Zoom about what to expect on Election Night 2020 for a 12-minute video that The Journal released on Oct. 22. As volatile as things have often seemed during the campaign, their observations are no less relevant now than they were two or three weeks ago.

Rather than predicting who will win or lose, the discussion focused on three potential paths the presidential election is likely to take – no clear winner, a decisive outcome and a disappearing Election Night lead. 

“So the interesting thing about this election is we have so many scenarios” says Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University.

The value of thinking about the election in terms of scenarios is that it helps people prepare to weather a variety of different possibilities for the future in times of great uncertainty. One doesn’t get caught off guard but also doesn’t get invested in a specific prediction about what will happen. 

For the everyday voter, there are three big takeaways  when it comes to thinking about these scenarios. First off, vote diligently. Voters help the process by following the rules and making sure their vote gets counted as intended.

Secondly, be patient about the counting of the votes. Don’t put too much stock in early election returns. Don’t get upset if the results appear ambiguous on Election Night. The process might be slower than usual for some races.

Finally, don’t get too content with remaining in your political bubble. Elections change the dynamics of political debates but they don’t necessarily resolve them. Think about how you can get outside of your political comfort zone by engaging with people who think differently than you do. Explicitly discuss politics and the issues you care about. If you’re dissatisfied with the status quo – and these days, who isn’t? – you might have more power than you realize to shape politics in your community and beyond.

Scenario 1: No Clear Winner

The first possibility is “No Clear Winner on Election Night.” It happened during the 2020 Iowa Caucuses. No one knew who won for several days.

“We had the media showing up, opening their programs on the night of the Iowa caucus, sitting there, and basically waiting for the results,” Beatty says. “Which is, I say, ridiculous, because the Iowa caucus is like a four tier process of allocating votes and delegates, and they changed all the rules for this year.”

Even if everything went smoothly, tallying the caucuses was going to take quite a while, Beatty says. 

“But you could see when I was clicking around on the cable news, they were really upset,” he says. “The media, all you know, different channels, that they did not have these results. And they really started sort of acting like this was a crisis.”

But not knowing the final results on Election Night is not a crisis, Beatty says. It’s not uncommon for some very close races to remain in doubt up until the time that the final results of an election are certified.

Kansans will be voting as they always do in elections by voting in-person on Election Day, voting early in-person and voting by mail-in ballot through the postal service or using dropboxes set up by their county election offices. The pandemic is changing how people vote to some degree in Kansas, but the mechanisms remain the same.  

“The expectation should be that this is a difficult process when there’s so many different types of votes,” Beatty says.

previewing election night

Voters line up at the Sedgwick County Election Office to vote on the last day of early voting for the 2020 Election. The line was two city blocks long, with over an hour waiting time.

Scenario 2: A Decisive Outcome

Of course, just because there’s a lot of talk about Election Night drama, it doesn’t mean it will actually happen. While there’s a lot of speculation about doomsday scenarios that leave the nation left in doubt over who is going to win the presidency, such a result is not a foregone conclusion.

Beatty points to the example of this past summer’s Kansas primary.

“I went into a TV station on Election Night all prepared. I told my wife, maybe I’ll come home at two in the morning. We sat there and a little before the 10 p.m. news even started, we’re like, ‘Well, I think most of these races are over.’” 

The results coming in that night left little doubt about who the winners and losers would be. 

Pilar Pedraza, senior reporter at KAKE-TV in Wichita, has been covering elections since 1996. She says the only thing she’s experienced that’s comparable to this year in the 2000 presidential election.

“That one, nobody realized ahead of time it was going to be so dragged out,” Pedraza says. “This time, everybody is preparing for it to be dragged out. Now, whether or not it is I don’t know.  Two years ago, everybody was preparing for the Kansas governor’s race to not be finished on election night. And it was done by eight o’clock.”

It’s hard to predict what will happen, so newsrooms like hers are preparing for just about everything they can imagine.

“It’s just it’s really hard to tell, but we’re all preparing for the worst, preparing for a constitutional crisis, preparing for a Supreme Court battle and preparing for the Election Night to drag out for weeks or months,” Pedraza says.

But a dragged out election only occurs under certain conditions, says Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University.

“A lot of these scenarios about challenging the results and litigation, there may still be litigation, but it would be kind of beside the point,” Smith says. “It really requires a razor-thin election in order for this to come into play. And we may not have one, like Bob’s example of the Kansas primary this summer.”

Scenario 3: An Election Night Lead Dissipates After More Mail-in Ballots Come In

One scenario that’s being discussed a lot right now has to do with many mail-in ballots being counted after a bunch of the in-person returns have come in. In some states like Kansas, mail-in ballots have to be postmarked on Election Day but can be received by the election office up to three days later and still be counted.

Some observers have speculated that President Trump might appear to lead on Election Night only to surrender the lead to former Vice President Joe Biden once more mail-in ballots. But the sheer number of early voting being done by Democrats this year could also create a “blue mirage” that makes Biden appear to be much further ahead than he really is as Election Day voters are counted.

The bottom line is that observers should be prepared to be more patient than usual this Election Night.   

“People need to adjust their expectations, voters need to understand, we probably will not know a winner for sure on Election Night,” says Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “Second, we should be aware that we should not read too much into the ballots that we have counted on Election Day.”

Usually, Miller says, there’s not a big partisan difference in terms of who requests and votes a mail-in ballot. But this year is different.

“Democrats are disproportionately requesting mail ballots; Election Day voters will probably trend significantly more Republican. So we’re not going to have a full electorate in most states counted on Election Day,” Miller says. “There will likely be states that on Election Night, Donald Trump is winning in the votes that are counted. But as we count mail ballots, that have come in or will be coming in …  those are going to trend more Democratic.”

Mail-in ballots aren’t just a factor in the national race for president. Even some very close state and local races could be decided by them.

In Kansas, mail-in ballots must be postmarked by Election Day but will be counted if they are received by Friday. (Practically speaking, though, if you haven’t mailed your ballot in yet, your best bet now would be to deposit into a secure ballot drop box, take it to your polling site or the county election office before 7 p.m. on Election Day.)

The rules on mail-in ballots, as well as the fact that provisional ballots aren’t counted until the day results are certified, is something to keep in mind while interpreting the results of hotly contested races, such as the one involving U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall and state Sen. Barbara Bollier for an open U.S. Senate seat.

Despite Trump’s attacks on mail-in ballots, the lag time allowed for the counting of mail-in ballots in Kansas isn’t something to be worried about. What’s different this year is the volume. According to the Kansas Secretary of State’s office, more than a half-million Kansans have requested mail-in ballots, up from the more than 300,000 who did so in 2016.

“That’s not unusual that is not fraudulent or illegitimate, even despite the rhetoric we’re hearing now,” Miller says. “There are processes and laws in place for those ballots to be counted. And so the full results may take some time to know.”

While isolated examples of voter fraud do occur, it’s unlikely to be a significant factor in swaying the outcomes of elections, Smith says.

“Voter fraud today is extraordinarily rare,” Smith says. “Our system is set up to make far more errors of rejecting ballots of people who do have a right to vote than accepting ballots that they shouldn’t have accepted. We err on the side of rejecting ballots, not acceptance, but the real issue at this point is now being fought out in the court of public opinion.”

It might take a little longer to know the winner of this year’s election than usual. But eventually everyone will know. The biggest problem is whether enough Americans are willing to accept results that don’t bring their preferred candidate a victory.

“There has been interesting polling on this over the years, and I believe … that the last presidential election, where average citizens of both parties agreed that the outcome was fair and legal was 1996,” Miller says. “Ever since 2000, the party that lost that election, its voters said the outcome was fraudulent. It was illegitimate.”

The divide dates back to the dispute over the 2000 presidential election involving Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, where a dispute over the counting of votes in Florida went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“What Bush v. Gore did, was it also ushered in the era of fraud rhetoric, whether it is casting aspersions on voters, or casting aspersions on the people who are counting the votes or judges,” Miller says. “I think it’s set us up as a society – and I’m speaking about average people here, not just what our politicians are saying – to believe that the only way that our side … can lose is through fraud or some illegitimate means.”

But there are things you can do as an individual to help not only make the election go smoother but also strengthen the civic culture. First off, seek out good information.

“For the love of God, don’t get your news from social media,” Smith says. “Social media is for and was designed for entertainment. We have wonderful professional news outlets that hire professional journalists and teams of fact checkers that validate information before it’s reported. For heaven’s sake, please don’t get your news from social media.”

Pedraza, who has been reporting on election security over the past year, advises voters to get their questions answered as early as possible.

“Be mindful of giving yourself time. Last minute always leads to mistakes. And that’s on anybody’s part,” Pedraza says.

If you’ve waited until Election Day to get your answers, you’ll have to adjust your expectations, because election officials will be busy. So don’t wait until the polls are about to close to go vote or ask a question.

By ensuring that you are getting your vote counted as intended, you’ll be helping not just yourself, but increasing trust in the entire election process. That’s important, because there are many signs pointing to the country’s democracy being at a precarious juncture, Miller says.

“It’s my job to know how democracies fall apart. And they do. And I see us on that path … It is not new. It is not Donald Trump. It is a decades long path that the entire political spectrum, the entire ideological spectrum, has engaged in,” Miller says. “I would be lying to you if I said I was 100% certain that there was not going to be violence after this election, whether that comes from the left or the right.”

Miller says he doesn’t expect to see violence on the scale that gripped a place such as Kenya in 2007-08, where post-election violence killed more than a thousand people and displaced hundreds of thousands. But he fears that more isolated acts of violence could erupt.

“I have never thought as a political scientist that this is something I’m afraid of,” Miller says, “and I genuinely am.”

But it’s not something that has to happen. Miller says that average citizens do have the power to shape political discourse in Kansas and beyond for the better.  One way to do that is by working to interact beyond their political echo chambers.

“Democracy is supposed to make you uncomfortable, it is supposed to challenge your views,” Miller says. “That really runs counter to how probably most of us function politically, where we have relatively few people that we engage with politically, and there are people who already agree with us … We create our own echo chambers in our social lives. To the point where we believe that it’s impossible that a majority of society might disagree with us in any way whatsoever. I think that’s unhealthy.”

Miller says he thinks average people have a lot more power than they often realize to influence the political climate by engaging with people they disagree with or by being willing to explicitly discuss politics within their social networks. Those conversations can often be difficult because they invite conflict. 

But it’s going to be difficult to truly address the issues that divide Kansans and Americans unless more people are willing to get outside of their political comfort zones.   

“I would say you don’t have to necessarily depend on Donald Trump or Laura Kelly or Joe Biden or anyone else to change politics for you,” Miller says. “You have the power to start to change that yourself. If you care to change it.”

Chris Green is the managing editor of The Journal, a print and digital magazine published by the Kansas Leadership Center.

This article appears in conjunction with the Fall 2020 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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