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Counting votes isn’t cheating: A voter’s guide to the election

An employee wears a Halloween costume while early voting and absentee ballots are processed in Tucson on Saturday. (Cheney Orr/Reuters)
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Hello there! You are reading this because you heard somewhere that there would be concerns about the security of counting votes after Election Day or because you expressed such concerns to someone who sent you this link as a result. And, in an unusual act of graciousness in these tumultuous times, you actually clicked the link and decided to read the article.

Either way: Welcome!

Our goal here is pretty straightforward. We're going to walk through how vote-counting works, when we can expect results and why there's no reason for concern about mail-in ballots in particular.

Before we do, we should address the reason we’re having this conversation: President Trump’s rhetoric about the election. It’s important to remember that, regardless of your view of Trump, he is not an impartial observer in the context of election results. He, like any politician (or any business owner, for that matter), is going to look for advantages that increase his odds of success. By asserting that counting votes after Election Day is suspect, he increases skepticism of a pool of votes that polling and public records show are more likely to favor his opponent, former vice president Joe Biden. Even if you accept that his arguments are valid, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that neither Trump nor his campaign is an objective observer in this context. In other words, if your response to the arguments below is to cite arguments from Trump or his team, recognize that you’re relying on claims made by those who will benefit from them the most.

With that out of the way, let's begin.

How vote-counting works

If you’ve voted before, you have some experience in the mechanics at play. If you vote in person, you go into a polling place where your identity is validated. You then indicate your choices on a ballot or a machine. Generally, those results are then quickly indexed, either by scanning ballots or by being stored in the voting machine itself. This is why day-of results are compiled quickly: They’re already (1) verified and (2) digitized or counted.

Voting by mail or dropping off a ballot is different. You’re sent a ballot and fill it out. You then turn it back in either through the mail or by placing it in a drop box. The votes then need to be both verified and digitized or counted, both of which take time. Verification generally involves matching the signature on file for you with your signature on the ballot. There are other safeguards, too, like ensuring that the ballot itself is legitimate and that it was returned in accordance with the proper guidelines. There are a lot of reasons that ballots might be rejected — leading to a lot of ballots being rejected. It’s far, far more common for a valid ballot to be rejected than for a fraudulent one to be caught, but catching fraudulent ballots is the entire point here.

Then, of course, the ballot needs to be tallied and scanned into the system as it would be at a polling place. All of this takes a while, particularly when there are a lot of ballots.

When we typically know who won an election

Most adults are familiar with how election night works. You tune into a news network and watch as polls close. An anchor offers updates about what’s happening as some guy pokes at a big electronic map talking about counties you’ve never heard of. There are exit polls; there are commercials.

At some point, the anchor makes an announcement: "[Our network] can now call Oklahoma for Donald Trump.” Sometimes those announcements come right after the polls close in that state (as in Oklahoma). Sometimes they come after a few hours, as when the results are close.

What’s important to remember is that what’s being reflected isn’t actual vote-counting, mostly, but analysis. Media outlets can call a state as soon as its polls close because the state has, say, consistently had Trump up by 40 points in polling and because the exit polls conducted in the state show nothing to indicate that the large margin is inaccurate. Or, in other states, the call is made in short order because the vote that’s coming in in certain places is lining up with what observers expected. If Biden led in New York state in pre-election polling but votes from Manhattan show Trump running even with Biden, networks would be slow to call New York for the Democrat. This is why those guys (always guys) poking at the maps always talk about certain counties; they’re the counties that indicate where a race is likely to go.

All of these calls of states for candidates by networks and the Associated Press, then, are educated estimates of what will happen when the votes are counted. And, usually, they’re on the money. Usually, the called winner actually ends up winning once the votes are counted. (There are exceptions.) But it’s the counting of the votes that wins the election, not the predictions of the media.

This year, there's a wrinkle in this well-known system. Because it will take longer to tally those absentee votes, it will be harder to compare what's expected in key counties with what's actually happening.

Imagine a hypothetical swing-state city in which half the residents cast ballots by mail and half vote on Election Day. Those who vote early prefer Biden by 12 points, 56 percent to 44 percent. Those who vote on Election Day prefer Trump by 10 points, 55 percent to 45 percent. If those absentee votes aren’t counted immediately, the statewide results will look like a 10-point Trump win. But, of course, the result isn’t a Trump win. It’s a Trump loss, by 1 point. (The math is left as an exercise for the reader. The correct answer can be found here.)

This shift has been called the “red mirage,” the perception on election night that Trump is winning because the heavily pro-Biden votes haven’t yet been counted. It’s not that they won’t be counted or that there’s anything weird about their being counted. It’s just slower, because they need to be verified and tallied, something that already happened for in-person votes. We just need to wait a little longer, and not assume that just because Trump’s votes were counted faster that it means necessarily that he is going to win.

Here’s another way to think about this. Imagine if you were presented the scoring plays in the Super Bowl in random order. I tell you that the San Francisco 49ers scored a field goal and a touchdown and another touchdown and another field goal. The 49ers are up 20 to nothing! But, then, I tell you that the Kansas City Chiefs scored a field goal and then a touchdown — and then three more touchdowns. The Chiefs were never not going to win, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that they weren’t going to.

In fact, the 49ers never led 20 to zero. It’s just how you present the results that created that illusion.

Why mail-in ballots are secure

At issue this year is that many absentee votes will be counted after polls close in each state. This itself isn’t abnormal; states often end up counting absentee and provisional ballots for days after an election. It’s one reason results aren’t generally certified by states for several weeks after the election is over. It just takes a while to ensure an accurate count, even if the race at issue is a blowout.

In other words, it might take a while to fill you in on what happened with the Chiefs. Again, that doesn't change the result, it just means that you won't know who won the Super Bowl for a bit.

Trump has insisted for months that these ballots are subject to rampant fraud pretty explicitly because he wants to argue that they shouldn’t be counted. To extend the above analogy, it’s like Joe Montana showing up to try to keep me from telling you about all those Chiefs touchdowns. They still happened, but maybe Montana’s just going to claim without evidence that the Chiefs only scored because they cheated. That’s not true, but if he can convince you that it is, you might believe that the Niners actually won. This is Trump’s strategy.

It is not the case, though, that mail-in ballots are subject to rampant fraud. It’s not the case that they’re subject even to widespread fraud. Fraud occurs, sure, but rarely. Trump likes to talk about how people use dead people’s ballots to vote. A recent study of ballots in Washington, where mail ballots have been standard for years, found no more than 14 possible instances in which a ballot was cast for a dead person between 2011 and 2018 — meaning that it occurred in 0.0003 percent of votes.

Don’t believe me? Here’s Benjamin L. Ginsberg, a longtime attorney for the Republican Party, writing in The Washington Post.

“The truth is that over all those years Republicans found only isolated incidents of fraud,” Ginsberg wrote. “Proof of systematic fraud has become the Loch Ness Monster of the Republican Party. People have spent a lot of time looking for it, but it doesn’t exist."

There's lots and lots of evidence reinforcing Ginsberg's position and essentially no evidence bolstering Trump's. He likes to point to random incidents involving ballots generally to imply that fraud occurred, but those incidents are almost always either not fraud or fraud at a microcosmic scale.

Here’s where we come back to the original point about Trump’s objectivity. You can either choose to believe the assessments above, from Post analysis, independent research and a former Republican attorney, or you can choose to believe that Trump is the one faithfully presenting the risk of fraud.

This year, there’s an added complication on the counting of mail-in ballots. Because of the massive increase in absentee votes and because of slowdowns in the Postal Service, many ballots will be sent before Election Day and received only afterward. In some states, like California, those votes are counted. In others, they aren’t. In some states, the rules have been changed — given both the coronavirus pandemic and those mail slowdowns — to count ballots that arrive late.

Trump and the Republican Party don't want them to count. Democrats and the Biden campaign do. The Supreme Court has deferred to state courts on the issue.

It’s a fair point to debate. But it is not the case that these ballots are fraudulent ballots. They’re just late. There’s no evidence at all that Democrats will somehow manage to slip thousands of votes in under the wire somehow, an allegation that’s been made by Trump and his allies. Similar accusations were made in Florida during a close Senate race in that state; the allegations were found to be meritless.

That year, Trump argued that the late votes (coming in from populous, largely Democratic counties) shouldn't be counted and that the results as tallied on election night should stand. For days, this ran like a fever in conservative media, this idea that Democrats were trying to somehow steal the election. What was happening, though, was that votes were being counted. At the end of the day, the Republican won.

It's a great microcosm of this year, in fact. On the night of the election, the Republican appeared to have a lead. Ballots counted afterward were largely valid and shifted the result to the Democrat. But it wasn't until all of those ballots were counted that a winner could be determined, days later.

For all of the tumult surrounding the counting, the counters simply did their job. Here’s hoping the same can happen this week.

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