As Election Day draws closer, prudent observers are warning about a nightmare scenario where Donald Trump prematurely declares victory on election night, and chaos and dissension ensue.
It may sound like reach, given Joe Biden’s strong polling lead. But bear with me: By attacking the concept of mail-in voting as a vehicle for voter fraud, Trump is implicitly discouraging his voters (who skew predominantly older) from voting early. This is an act that, at first blush, looks like unilateral disarmament. Biden voters will have months to mail in their ballots; Trump voters following his lead will have one day.
If you’re rooting for Biden, this all sounds great, right? But here’s where things get messy: Biden’s mail-in votes will (ironically) be tabulated and reported late, while Trump’s Election Day votes will be tabulated and reported quickly. When it comes to perception, speed kills.
Although we can expect that an influx of tens of millions of Biden ballots will start piling up long before Election Day, states have different laws regarding when the mail-in ballots can be counted. And some states—including Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—don’t allow tabulations to begin until election day, which is to say you can’t keep a running count.
Counting these mail-in ballots on Election Day will be tedious, complicated, and time-consuming. And even the most efficient operation will still be incomplete, because in some states, ballots can arrive and be counted after Election Day, so long as they are postmarked by Election Day. And if Trump intentionally slows down the post office, this problem will be exacerbated.
Why does this matter? If you’re watching the news on election night—the way we’ve always done it—the first votes to be counted will very likely be Trump votes. As The New York Times columnist Ben Smith has warned, “In states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, it would be easy to have 100 percent of precincts reporting their Election Day results—but have mail-in votes piled up in a warehouse, uncounted.”
Now here’s where things go from messy to scary. As previously noted, we have all been trained to watch the news on election night—and to expect someone to be declared the victor. Even if we manage to overcome this age-old reflex, broadcasters will be compelled to show the only results they have—the Election Day results. This could give the false impression that Trump has shocked the world again. It’s absurd to think they won’t do this. Can you imagine broadcasting the Super Bowl and not showing the first-quarter score? Neither can I.
In this scenario, Trump could come out of the White House, stand before the cameras, and—buttressed by undeserved confidence and what might seem like overwhelming evidence—unilaterally declare victory.
This may sound pathetic and obvious and lame and defensive on his part, but this is Donald Trump we’re talking about. And maybe 40 percent of the country will believe him. After all, they’re watching the results! And Trump has been warning about voter fraud for months!
Now, let’s make things even more interesting, and concede there will be a handful of irregularities or legitimate examples of attempted mail-in voter fraud. There just will. The law of averages suggests this is inevitable. It’s easy to imagine Trump’s attorney general casting aspersions on any ballots that aren’t counted on Election Day and issuing a report declaring Trump the victor. If that happens, I’m 100 percent confident the brave Republicans in the U.S. Senate will stand up to Trump. (“Uh, we’re gonna have to wait and see,” said sycophantic Senator X, “but it does look like Democrats are trying to overturn the results of a fair election.”)
Assuming the guardrails of democracy hold, and this scam ultimately fails, I could easily imagine that half of the country believes Trump’s the victim, and Joe Biden is cast as an illegitimate president. That’s actually the best-case version. (Not to scare anyone, but this is only one of the ways this whole thing could go sideways. An Electoral College tie is always a possibility, and a less likely but still scary/plausible scenario is that Trump wins fair and square, but Joe Biden refuses to concede.)
Our union is tenuous as it is. The last thing we need is for another crisis over legitimacy.
The best way to prevent this outcome is to talk about it, which is why (like lots of other folks) I’m issuing this warning. It’s vital that we explain to every American why it is expected (and not at all a conspiracy) that Trump will be winning on election night but will (likely) still lose. Barring a complete blowout where Biden wins states like Georgia, it would be weird if that doesn’t happen.
Likewise, we must begin to urge the media—particularly TV news... particularly Fox News—to resist the temptation to cover this election like it’s a normal year. On Super Tuesday, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum co-anchored the coverage, while the primetime opinionators took the night off. The more they stick to this formula, the better off we will all be.
Those of us hoping for a smooth night are going to need all the help we can get. Don’t be surprised if Trump does just what I suggested—and don’t expect to know who really won for at least several days. And even then, things could get dicey. Donald Trump is going to be subverting democracy until they drag him out of the White House by his hair.