The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trailer: How politicians could exploit a slow vote count

In this edition: Georgia's ugly primary reveals how bad November could be, turnout numbers trickle in from other key races, and a QAnon candidate gets an express lane to Congress.

With Joe Biden officially securing the Democratic nomination, and with no primaries next week, the newsletter will be taking the next few days off. Live every day like it's Flag Day.

The Dow Jones index dropped by 7 percent while I was typing, and this is The Trailer.

On Wednesday afternoon, Teresa Tomlinson announced that Georgia's hard-fought Democratic primary for Senate was going to a runoff. The ballots were in, “most have been counted,” and it looked to her that they'd get an August rematch.

“It appears that for the third time in his political career, Jon Ossoff has failed to break the 50 percent [of the vote] needed to avoid a runoff,” Tomlinson said.

Within two hours, more ballots were counted — and Ossoff had cleared 50 percent. Before the sun had set, the Associated Press had called the race for Ossoff. A primary that had been delayed twice due to the covid-19 pandemic had, as many people worried, led to a confounding election, punishingly long lines and voters who did not get absentee ballots. Ossoff said he initially declined to declare victory or respond to Tomlinson, because doing so would have distracted from all of it.

“You have to hold election officials accountable to count every vote, all the way through the finish,” Ossoff said in an interview. “The message me and my team were driving on Wednesday was not about winning, it was about making sure the votes were counted, because what happened on Tuesday was an embarrassment.”

The herky-jerk transition by many states to a largely mail-in voting system has led to delays of vote counts for a week or more. The widely watched troubles of in-person voting, which were at their worst in Georgia, have piled on more delays. Provisional ballots were distributed in Georgia to voters at sites where new machines did not work; some voters in Georgia and Nevada were in line until the wee hours of Wednesday morning. The prospect of a November election that can't be called for days is growing more likely, and even Democrats who fret about the president misleading voters about the count have struggled with the reality of slowly counted ballots.

“People need to be educated on this, because other people are going to try to convince them that it's fraud when late results don't look exactly like early results,” said Ben Tribbett, a Democratic strategist who watched the Associated Press make an early call against one of his Georgia clients. The call had not been retracted, but “If you count the ballots that were returned first, you typically are seeing an electorate that's older and more white. That doesn't mean the ballots are reflective of what happened when people turned in votes later, or at the last minute.” 

Democratic strategists are already wrestling with the challenge of getting some of their most reliable voters, younger and nonwhite, used to voting by mail. The voter access group iVote will spend $20 million to promote the new options in just five states: Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Younger voters, said iVote spokeswoman Rachel Thomas, frequently told researchers that they did not know where to get the stamps needed to send out their ballots. States that had already replaced in-person voting with mail ballots had to deal first with massive confusion; Colorado, for example, had 18,000 disqualified ballots in 2014, its first all-mail election year.

June's primaries, held across states that had months to prepare for pandemic conditions, have revealed just how slowly ballots can come in when many people vote absentee. While 14 states and the District of Columbia have held primaries this month, the count was finished on Election Day in only a handful of them. Idaho waited until two weeks after its ballot return date to tally them up. Maryland, which voted June 2, was still tabulating votes Thursday morning. So was Pennsylvania, seen by both Democrats and Republicans as a pivotal November state.

“We might not know who won Pennsylvania until a month after the election,” Joe Biden pointed out in a Wednesday interview with “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, echoing a common Democratic worry: that the president would declare victory while there are hundreds of thousands of ballots yet to be counted. “What do you think this is about for Trump?” 

Biden and other Democrats now take for granted that a slow count in November would be exploited by the president to suggest that the election was being stolen. Biden said as much to Noah, and Trump has hinted as much throughout his political career, seeing any electoral system that does not report all results quickly as potentially rigged. When Election Day ended in 2018, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona trailed in the count for that year's Senate race. By Nov. 9, tens of thousands more ballots had been counted, pushing Sinema ahead and drawing a rebuke from Trump. 

“In Arizona, SIGNATURES DON’T MATCH,” Trump wrote, repeating local Republicans' unfounded claims about flaws in returned absentee ballots. “Electoral corruption Call for a new Election? We must protect our Democracy!”

The slow count in Arizona wasn't unusual, nor was the late trend toward Democrats. A majority of Arizonans were voting by mail even before the pandemic, and for years, races called on Election Day tightened a bit in the following week. But the president has typically answered questions about absentee voting by suggesting that ballots could be manipulated or manufactured. 

Most Republicans have linked their losses in 2018's close congressional races in California to the Democrats' superior ballot-chasing operation; the president has suggested, without evidence, that Democrats won because ballots were added to make them win. 

“We had seven elections for Congress and they were, like, tied and they lost every one of them because they came and they dropped a whole pile of ballots on the table,” the president said last month. “But you don't think they rip them out of mailboxes?” 

That anecdote, sourced to a California Republican activist, doesn’t reflect what analysts have seen in absentee voting. A study by The Washington Post and the Electronic Registration Information Center found just 372 possible cases of double voting, or voting on behalf of deceased people, out of the 14.6 million mail votes cast in the 2016 and 2018 elections.

Presidential suspicion is not enough to challenge an election's results, and no serious allegations of fraud were made in any of these races. But changes made to allow more absentee voting have confounded traditional analysis of election results. In Georgia, the Associated Press declared runoffs in two Democratic House primaries late Tuesday, in the 7th and 13th districts. In the 7th, the gap between the second- and third-place finishers was far smaller than the amount of outstanding ballots. In the 13th, the AP had to retract its call that Rep. David Scott would go to a runoff, as absentee ballots boosted his vote above 50 percent. In the first race, the result could change. In the second, the call has already been retracted, after nearly a day of reporting that assumed Scott would face another election in August.

In an email, an AP deputy managing editor said that the 13th District race was called too early and that the newswire's system for calling races took each state's election process into account.

The nature of the vote count in Georgia didn’t affect how we called races that night, because our process assumes the vote tabulation will be uneven, said David Scott, the deputy managing editor. There is no uniform system for conducting elections in the U.S.

The confusion over slow ballot counts has already led to skewed interpretation of results. Last week, the New York Post published an analysis of Biden's “enthusiasm problem” based on returns in Pennsylvania that seemed to show Republican turnout surging past Democratic turnout. 

“With almost 98 percent of districts counted, Republicans have cast more than 861,000 ballots for Donald Trump, with 734,000 Democrats voting for Joe Biden,” wrote Salena Zito, a Pittsburgh-based reporter who writes about Trump's base. 

That percentage did not reflect the hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots that had not been counted, most of them from Philadelphia and its increasingly Democratic suburbs — as the state had warned would happen. By Thursday morning, Biden had won 1,161,290 votes to Trump's 1,031,640 votes, but the idea that the president had blown his rival away in a swing state had circulated widely.

It's not unusual for campaigns to declare victory as soon as possible in close races, positioning themselves for recounts or legal challenges by creating the impression that they won already. But Trump's skepticism about absentee and late-counted ballots has given Democrats pause. 

After initially predicting that the runoff was set, Tomlinson said in an interview last night that she had no questions about the vote count and saw no reason to doubt that late-arriving ballots were legitimate. She had looked at the numbers and assumed, incorrectly, that the last-minute votes from suburban Atlanta would not dramatically change the outcome.

“I have little to nothing in common with the president when it comes to that kind of rhetoric,” Tomlinson said. “I just don't speak that way, particularly about governmental processes. I don't cast doubt on things such as the justice system, or the governmental system, and I would not do so when it comes to a voting system.”

On Wednesday night, after the Associated Press called the race for Ossoff, Tomlinson conceded. Only then did Ossoff declare victory, using the speech mostly to warn what would happen if the state held another election under these conditions.

Reading list

“Voting debacle in Georgia came after months of warnings went unaddressed,” by Amy Gardner, Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Shawn Boburg

The real story of what happened in a botched primary.

A bumpy road for progressives in West Virginia, by Aída Chávez

Some surprising wins, and a big loss, for a red state's left wing.

“Kamala Harris seizes the spotlight as Biden seeks a veep — but worries linger,” by Sean Sullivan

The remaking of a national Democratic star.

“For Trump superfans, huge rallies can't resume soon enough,” by Andrew Egger

Why the people who love attending Trump rallies are ready for the front row again.

“Joe Biden warns that President Trump ‘is going to try to steal this election,’ ” by Matt Viser

Sharper rhetoric from a candidate whose base isn't calmed by good poll numbers.

The GOP’s decision to keep its 2016 platform is, well, a little awkward for Trump, by Aaron Blake

The president's party won't have a new platform committee, but its last product is out of date.

Liberal groups back plan to expand Supreme Court, by Holly Otterbein

A radical idea gets more mainstream Democratic backing.

Turnout watch

While some big states continue to count ballots from this month’s primaries, we’ve got full results from a series of presidential primaries and a few key down-ballot races. (In every state mentioned, the Democratic presidential contest remained competitive by the time their 2016 primaries were held.)

The presidential contests had no surprises but a few insights into the protest votes still being cast against Donald Trump and Joe Biden. In South Dakota, Democratic turnout was basically flat from 2016, with 53,004 votes cast that year and 52,650 votes cast in June. 

Both parties saw higher turnout in New Mexico, too. Democrats cast 246,539 votes this year, up from 214,307 votes in 2016, while Republican turnout rose from 104,029 to 157,289. That had a lot to do with this year’s wider range of contests, as the safely blue 3rd Congressional District saw its first Democratic primary in years, while Republicans had a competitive Senate primary and a bitter race in the 2nd Congressional District.

In both of those states, Bernie Sanders crossed the 15 percent threshold required by DNC rules for candidates to win delegates. He narrowly did so in Rhode Island, too, by a handful of votes. While Sanders won nearly a third of votes cast in person, most Democrats cast mail ballots, and they broke overwhelmingly for Biden. Turnout was down from 2016, when the primary was held in late April, falling from 121,253 votes to 101,409 votes. The Republican decline was steeper, from 61,179 votes to 21,184 votes, with nothing else on the ballot to push turnout.

It was another story altogether in West Virginia, where decades of conservative voters moving from the Democratic Party to the GOP led, for the first time, to Republicans casting more votes in a presidential primary. (Registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin in the year 2000, and are essentially tied now.) That meant the end of a recent Democratic tradition: a backlash by disgruntled voters against their party’s looming nominee. While Biden won 65.3 percent of the vote, just 180,459 Democrats took part in their primary, compared with 241,016 in 2016. Republican turnout rose from 202,880 in 2016 to 206,320 this week.

While more than a third of West Virginia Democrats opposed Biden, they scattered behind 11 challengers, preventing any from grabbing delegates. Sanders, who had for years pointed to his 2016 West Virginia win as proof that his agenda could motivate white working-class voters, got just 12 percent of the vote. Both he and Biden did worst in the state’s historically Democratic southwest counties. 

In McDowell, where Sanders held a nationally televised 2017 town hall, he won just 138 votes, down from 1,453 in 2016. Biden carried the county, as he did every county, but with overall Democratic turnout falling from 2,616 to 1,660. The decline in nearby Mingo County was even steeper: Turnout fell from 5,018 to 2,223, and Biden won just 41 percent of the vote, as one in five Democrats went for David Rice, a perennial candidate who ran no campaign after securing a ballot line. 

Hundreds more Democrats left the presidential line on their ballots blank, while voting in other primaries. In the party’s gubernatorial and Senate races, that led to a mixed outcome: Sen. Joe Manchin III’s preferred candidate for governor pushed past a liberal challenger, while Manchin’s liberal challenger in 2018 secured the Senate nomination. That candidate, Paula Jean Swearengin, won 68,888 votes, around 38 percent of the total, up from the 48,594 votes she’d won against Manchin. And while liberal Stephen Smith lost the party's gubernatorial nomination, candidates aligned with his “Rise Up West Virginia” project did well, while teacher Amy Nichole Grady unseated the Republican leader of the state Senate.

Ad watch

Jeff Sessions, “Jeff Sessions Took Action.” The former senator, who faced no opposition when he last won this seat, has been weakened politically by the president's anger at his recusal during the Russia investigations. Sessions nonetheless has something his opponent, Tommy Tuberville, can't have: a tough immigration record from nearly two years in the Justice Department. “Far too many people say they want to do something to fix the border but don't have the commitment to do so,” Sessions says. The key achievement touted in the ad is the “zero tolerance” policy that backfired on the administration after it led to mass family separation. Sessions's bet, backed up by polling, is that Alabama Republicans supported it.

Republican Majority Fund, “Confused Joe Biden.” Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas raised more than $200,000 in the days between the New York Times publishing his op-ed about using military resources to shut down unrest and the Times parting ways with its op-ed page editor. That money went right into this spot, which like Cotton's first anti-Biden ad focuses both on China and whether Biden is mentally fit for the presidency. “Biden doesn't know what day it is,” a narrator says. “He doesn't even know what office he's running for.”

Manny Sethi, “Leftwing Lockdown.” One of the many Republicans running for Tennessee's open Senate seat, Sethi, a medical doctor, captures some frustrated conservative sentiments about how months of shutdown were followed by gigantic anti-police brutality protests. “Opening a business is a crime. Burning a business is not?” Sethi. “You got a problem with any of that? You're a racist, and you want to kill Grandma.” 

Poll watch

The biggest news in polling this week was not a fresh set of numbers, but a cease-and-desist letter sent by the Trump campaign to CNN. It was the first, according to the network, that a campaign had ever sent about a poll, and it argued that the CNN-SRSS survey was “a phony poll [designed] to cause voter suppression, stifle momentum and enthusiasm for the president.” The network rejected that claim; CNN had not changed its methodology since the previous poll, which was touted by some Republicans as it showed the president leading in a subgroup of battleground states.

Do you approve of the job President Trump is doing? (Gallup, 1,034 adults)

Approve: 39% (-10) 
Disapprove: 57% (+9)

Gallup, which stopped polling the presidential horse race after 2012, has seen some wild swings when asking voters about the president's performance. These are the worst numbers for the president since October 2019 and by far his weakest approval ratings since Joe Biden secured the Democratic nomination. More ominously, when asked about the president's handling of the economy, the president has his lowest ratings since November 2017, the period when he was presiding over the passage of tax reform and was still seen by most voters as presiding over the economy left behind by President Barack Obama.

In the states

One of the biggest results in Georgia's primaries was easy to call, with conservative activist Marjorie Taylor Greene securing a spot in the runoff for the Republican nomination for the 14th District. The business executive, who spent at least $700,000 on a campaign that included a pro-Trump bus tour and viral advertising, had 41 percent of the vote by Thursday afternoon; neurosurgeon Jon Cowan won 21 percent of the vote and will face Greene in August.

“I can't give 'em brain transplants or a stiffer spine,” Cowan joked of Washington insiders in his pre-primary ad, which ended, as many safe-seat Republican ads now do, with him shooting a semiautomatic weapon.

Yet Cowan may be the more mainstream Republican in the race. Greene, as the Daily Beast's Will Sommer and others have reported, has advanced numerous fringe ideas, saying last year that some of the claims by “Q,” the anonymous chat board figure at the center of the QAnon conspiracy theory, “have really proven to be true.” (Among other things, QAnon adherents believe that mass arrests are coming, any day now, of top liberal and Democratic Party figures who regularly commit murder.)

Greene is one of several QAnon-curious candidates to emerge from primaries this year, but she's the first to do so in a race where the Republican nomination is tantamount to victory. Greene earned that: She has jumped into many conservative causes, traveling to Washington last year to urge the impeachment of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) “for crimes of treason” and saying on a webcam video that the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas may have been staged to build support for gun control.

“I don’t believe Stephen Paddock was a lone wolf,” Greene said. “I don’t believe that he pulled this off all by himself, and I know most of you don’t, either. So, I am really wondering if there is a bigger motive there, and does it have to do with the Second Amendment?”

Greene raced into the final days of the primary with broad, well-known support, touting endorsements from Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. The runoff will choose a nominee on Aug. 11, and there was no official Republican condemnation of Greene in the 36 hours after her primary win.

Candidate tracker

After a three-month hiatus, President Trump plans to return to the campaign trail with a rally in Tulsa on June 19. There's more symbolism assigned to that date and location than at most MAGA events, as Tulsa was the site of an anti-black massacre 99 years ago, and the date is celebrated by black Americans as “Juneteenth,” the day that the Emancipation Proclamation was finally delivered in every state.

Before that, on Wednesday, the president appeared with black political commentators at the White House to talk about his agenda, returning to familiar themes — opportunity zones, criminal justice restructuring and an economy that was growing for black Americans before the pandemic.

“I think that the economy will be, next year, will be maybe the best it’s ever been,” Trump said. “You can already see it with the stock market, how it’s been going up, because you have a lot of smart people that are betting on exactly what I’m saying. The stock market is almost as high as it was prior to the plague floating in from China.”

On Wednesday, Joe Biden appeared remotely with NAACP members, talking about his own agenda for black America but growing defensive (as he has before) when asked why many young voters did not support him.

“I’ve been told all along that young people think I’m not in the right place,” Biden said. “There is no polling to sustain that. There is no voting that has sustained that.” While Biden leads Trump with younger voters, the lead is smaller than the one Hillary Clinton had at similar points in 2016, and voters under 30 broke heavily against Biden in the primary.

On Thursday, Biden held an economic roundtable in Philadelphia, where he reiterated a plan to hire at least 100,000 contact tracers to keep track of coronavirus infections and warned that the president was not creating the conditions for recovery.

“Trump has basically had a one-point plan: Open businesses. Just open,” Biden said. “But it does nothing to keep workers safe.”

Cable TV networks ignored the roundtable, a sore point for the Biden campaign, which has gotten only a few of its events covered live. After the event wrapped, and after the Trump campaign had clipped audio of Biden tripping over one of his points, the campaign jokingly asked networks to cover Biden live, accusing them of a “failure to expose the American people to these rambling displays of incoherence, ineptitude and forgetfulness.” 

Veep watch

Of the women most frequently named as potential running mates for Joe Biden, Kamala D. Harris has proven to be the biggest fundraiser. A Tuesday Harris-Biden event raked in $3.5 million, continuing to expand the donor network for a candidate who won the party's nomination while lagging behind in cash.

Elizabeth Warren, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, succeeded in getting its GOP majority to pass an amendment that would start the process of potentially renaming bases currently named for Confederate military leaders. “Hopefully our great Republican senators won't fall for this!” tweeted the president, hours after the voice vote succeeded. (The amendment could still be stripped by the full Senate.)

Florida's Val Demings got an unwelcome profile from the American Prospect, which noted that she sponsored “Blue Lives Matter” legislation that has fallen out of favor with Democrats. Stacey Abrams appeared on “The View” to continue attacking Georgia's election management, rejecting the idea that Democratic county leaders, not the secretary of state, had failed.

“We allow counties to do the direct implementation, but it’s the responsibility of the secretary of state to make sure they know how to do it and that they have the resources to get it done,” Abrams said.


… 12 days until primaries in Kentucky, New York and Virginia
… 19 days until primaries in Colorado, Oklahoma and Utah
… 28 days until the Green Party meets to pick a presidential ticket
… 67 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 75 days until the Republican National Convention
… 145 days until the general election