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Election Dissection

Preparing for the 'red mirage'

In the frightening conclusion of last week's bizarre presidential debate, President Trump took advantage of a national televised audience to lie about vote-by-mail. Trump seems to be laying the groundwork to dispute the election if it does not go his way, preparing to attack the legitimacy of mail-in ballots received after Election Day if in-person voting favors him in key states.

Because so many mail-in ballots will be counted after Nov. 3, and because Biden voters are much more likely to vote by mail, it's possible the known results by the end of the night may skew toward Trump. Since many states will allow ballots postmarked by Election Day to count, the results could shift in Biden's direction slowly over the course of several days as mail-in ballots are processed. This problem is known as "the red mirage."


The Trump team is counting on this quirk of timing to aid his efforts to claim victory before the count is complete. Over the past few months, the president and his allies have engaged in a systematic disinformation campaign to discredit mail-in voting, which has in fact been successfully implemented for several years in both red and blue states. Trump's lies are demonstrable. Non-partisan organizations such as the Brennan Center for Justice and the Bipartisan Policy Center have studied states' implementation of mail-in voting and concluded it is extremely effective and remarkably free of fraud.

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There is growing fear Trump and his allies may declare victory on Election Day and attack the legitimacy of validly-cast votes received and counted afterwards. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) has even filed a blatantly unconstitutional bill requiring states to count and report all ballots within 24 hours after polls close on Election Day. With Attorney General William Barr acting more like an agent of the Trump campaign than the nation's top legal official, and federal courts stacked with Trump appointees, the president may hope the legal system will look favorably on his dubious legal arguments about mail-in ballots received after Election Day.

To reduce the likelihood of an authoritarian power grab, we need to change how we think about election night. Many of us have a picture in our minds of watching television election analysts as they stand in front of colorful red and blue maps, followed by a clear sense before we go to bed of who has won. This year, election night will be more like election week.

The media should not declare a winner if millions of ballots need to be processed and counted. Broadcasters and the Associated Press have enormous power to shape the election narrative. They must do so responsibly. This is especially important for Fox News, which will likely receive intense pressure to declare a premature victory for Trump.

The president of the United States is seeking to undermine the legitimacy of our democracy in real time. He must not be allowed to succeed.

Quentin Palfrey is chairman of the Voter Protection Corps. Read more from The Fulcrum's Election Dissection blog or see our full list of contributors.

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