Analysis: How state vote-counting rules create ‘mirages’ on election night


The 2020 election taught us an important lesson: The first results you see after the polls close on Election Night can be very different from the final results when all the votes are tallied, a process that can take days.

In some states, the Republicans went to the primaries in 2020, and when the postal votes for the Democrats were counted, the so-called “blue shift” or “red saffron” phenomenon was destroyed. But in other states, Republicans won the vote count over several days, driven by redder ballots.

These changes will happen again on Tuesday, as the results of the midterm races come in.

This is because of different state-by-state rules on how people can vote, how and when election officials count votes, and how often new results are published. Recent trends in voter preferences have also increased, with Democrats much more likely to vote by mail or at the ballot box, and Republicans more disproportionately supportive of going to the polls on Election Day.

These quirks of the US electoral system are normal and somewhat predictable. And they are not indicative of fraud or wrongdoing, as many prominent Republicans have falsely claimed.

When more people vote by mail or vote early, these “changes” or “experiences” can become even more exaggerated. And this year they have already cast ten million votes before Election Day.

Here’s a breakdown of the changes we could see in six battleground states — with critical races that will decide control of the Senate. President Joe Biden flipped five of those six states in 2020, and all saw lengthy vote counts. But a word of caution: nothing is set in stone. These are not predictions, they are guidelines.

Arizona is one of the most important states in this cycle. There are down-ballot races for the Senate, governor and statewide offices, including attorney general and secretary of state. In all four contests, the Republican candidate has promoted the conspiracy that the 2020 election was illegitimate.

A shift from blue to red could happen in Arizona, partly because election officials can begin processing mail-in ballots as soon as they receive them. It’s a painstaking process: election workers spend days opening envelopes, checking signatures and stacking ballots for easy tabulation. (They can do this preparation in advance, and start counting early, but the results are not published until election day.)

In 2020, the “red shift” in Arizona was clear. Former President Donald Trump gained ground as more ballots were counted after Election Night, but Trump never topped Biden, who carried the state by about 10,000 votes, or about 0.3 percent. of the vote

The Grand Canyon State has a long and bipartisan history of mail-in voting. But that trend began to change in 2020, as some Republicans shunned the method because of Trump’s false claims of fraud. Now, mail-in voting is more popular among Democrats, and early results look more “blue.”

Early results reported on election night generally reflect early votes received from Democrats who are more enthusiastic about mail-in voting. Later waves of results will come from polling places or mail-in ballots that arrived on Election Day, which will likely skew Republican, as they did in 2020.

But these “changes” can be unpredictable. In 2018, a flurry of late results helped Democrat Kyrsten Sinema beat GOP Sen. Martha McSally. The race was called six days after election day.

A “red mirage” is expected in Pennsylvania, where races for the Senate and governor are held.

This played out dramatically in 2020. Trump led by nearly 700,000 votes on Election night, but over four days, his lead evaporated as mail-in ballots were counted in the major population centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Biden won the Keystone State by about 63,000 votes, a projected victory there when he took the White House on the Saturday after Election Day.

There was a drastic change, in part because Pennsylvania election workers can’t begin processing mail-in ballots until Election Day. Democratic states have been relaxing those rules for years, which would lead to faster results on Election Night. The GOP-controlled legislature passed a bill to make that change last year, but Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor vetoed it because it also curtailed mail-in voting and imposed voter identification requirements.

However, there is a new state policy that encourages the so-called “marathon counting”.

The state offered grants to counties that promise to count votes continuously after the polls close, instead of going home in the middle of the night and starting over Wednesday morning. All but four of the 67 counties of the commonwealth benefited from this agreement. The new policy should speed up the counting.

Two years ago, Georgia helped flip the US Senate and the White House into Democratic hands.

Biden and the two Democratic candidates for the Senate prevailed in very close contests. (Biden’s victory came in November, while Senate candidates won runoffs in January 2021.) All padded their numbers over time as more votes were counted, pushing past the “red herring” of early results.

A similar “blue shift” is expected this year, where the Senate and governor races are close, with GOP Gov. Brian Kemp rematching Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams.

But the change may not be so drastic this time. The share of Georgians voting by mail is likely to be lower in 2022 than in 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic subsides. And election officials are more experienced at tabulating mail-in ballots, making the count faster. These and other factors will nullify the effect of the “blue shift”.

As results begin Tuesday night, remember that Georgia is a runoff state. If no candidate exceeds 50% in a specific race, the first two finishers will compete in the next month’s election.

The situation is unclear in Nevada, where there are competitive races for the Senate and governor. As in Arizona in 2020, in Nevada there was a noticeable shift from blue to red last year – Trump narrowed his lead over time, but did not get enough votes to beat Biden.

It is unclear whether this post-election dynamic will repeat itself this year.

State election officials have not released many details about the vote-counting process, such as which types of ballots will be reported first and which will be reported later. This information is essential to know the possible shape of the early voting, compared to the data reported later.

It’s also the first midterm election in Nevada with universal mail-in voting. The state adopted this system in 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and it is still in place for the 2022 cycle.

Another variable is Election Day postmarked ballots that arrive at election offices after the polls close. Some call them “late-arriving votes.” In Nevada, ballots are still perfectly legal and counted as long as they arrive by November 12th.

All this uncertainty – starting with knowing how many types of votes have been counted after election day – will make it difficult to project the winners on Tuesday night.

Wisconsin is another likely “blue swing” state, with votes getting better for Democrats over time.

But it’s a relatively small state, and its vote counting tends to go quickly. Wisconsin relies on thousands of local clerks to manage elections, and they typically complete most of the counting on election night.

In 2020 there was a “blue shift” in favor of Biden, and his victory became clear after 24 hours. Of the five states that Biden flipped in 2020, Wisconsin was the “first,” in the sense that it was the first Trump-to-Biden flip that the news networks were able to project.

We’ll see how the post-election changes play out in the Badger State, where the Senate race is competitive with a Republican incumbent and the governor’s race is tight with a Democratic incumbent.

In Michigan, there may be a red-blue switch.

State lawmakers passed a law last month that allows many locations to process mail-in ballots before Election Day. While many workers don’t take advantage of the extra processing time, some of the state’s largest cities do, including Detroit and Grand Rapids, the two largest cities.

This should speed up the count. It means we’ll likely see the full picture of the overall results come election night.

Two years ago, Trump was leading in Michigan when voters went to bed, but Biden pulled ahead the next day, and the networks soon projected him as the winner. Michigan’s secretary of state said Monday that it could again take 24 hours to report full results this year, though smaller counties may finish earlier than that.

Biden was helped by late voting in Detroit, a Democratic stronghold that has historically counted its votes more slowly than other jurisdictions because it is the largest city. The results in Detroit will be key in determining whether Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, fends off GOP candidate Tudor Dixon.