It was the kind of innocuous statement that White House press secretaries are there to offer.
“We may not know all the winners of elections for a few days,” Karine Jean-Pierre said at Monday’s press briefing. “It takes time to count all legitimate ballots in a legal and orderly manner. That’s how this is supposed to work. And it’s important for us to all be patient while votes are being counted.” It was a reminder being offered not just to the press, she said, but “for the folks who are watching.”
Votes are cast; you count them until you’ve counted them all. It’s not that this is “supposed” to take several days. It’s just that, because of the process that states and counties use to count votes, the process often can take that long.
But, particularly since 2020, any recognition that vote counting isn’t instantaneous is perceived as something ranging from partisan to nefarious. Because President Donald Trump knew he was losing his reelection bid and, because he was eager to convince people he didn’t lose and/or to retain power despite that loss, he amplified baseless questions about the vote-counting process. That included claims that slow tallying wasn’t simply introducing an opportunity for illegality but alleging explicitly that this was happening.
It wasn’t. Trump and his hangers-on have tried for two years to suggest that something happened in the post-election period (and the pre-election period and on Election Day) that illegally swung the vote against him. They’ve entirely failed to do so. But they managed to convince millions of Americans, most of them Republicans, that something nefarious was afoot — and to convince those same Americans that results showing Democrats as victorious should be dismissed.
Trump didn’t invent this. In 2018, in fact, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) used this same tactic to try (unsuccessfully) to shut down vote counting in two heavily Democratic counties in the state. The count continued, as it should have, and Scott narrowly won election to the Senate. Later analysis confirmed that there was nothing suspicious about the vote counting that Scott had suggested was riddled with fraud.
Scott’s efforts were hailed by Trump, who began elevating the idea that mail-in or absentee votes shouldn’t be counted.
“The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere,” he claimed on Twitter, falsely, “and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with election night!”
Again, entirely false. But you can see how the seed was planted.
By 2020, the situation was even more dramatic. The coronavirus pandemic led to a huge spike in mail-in voting and an amplification of the pattern that Scott and Trump had complained about in 2018. A wide gap in how partisans voted — Democrats by mail or early; Republicans on Election Day — meant that Trump and other Republicans could be expected to be doing better in the hours after polls closed.
After all, in most states voting in-person outsources verification and digitizing of each vote to the person casting the ballot. Millions of people (voters) put in a minute of work to cast a ballot at a polling place. Mail-in ballots, though, generally need to be validated and digitized by elections officials. So even with thousands of people working eight-hour days (staff), the sheer scale of the effort means it takes more time. Say it’s 10 million minutes of work. For 10 million voters, that takes one minute apiece. For 10,000 election workers, it takes 1,000 hours.
The divergence between election-night and final totals came to be known as the “red mirage”: the impression that Republicans had leads that were being eroded by Democrats instead of the running totals simply reflecting the order in which ballots were counted. And Trump decided that, like Scott, he would weaponize it.
In the early hours of Nov. 4, 2020, Trump addressed the media, suggesting that his election-night totals reflected an actual victory. “Frankly,” he told them, “we did win this election” — something the reporters were generally smart enough to recognize as nonsense. Trump was using the mirage to position himself as the winner whose election was being stolen instead of as a guy benefiting from how his smaller base of support cast their ballots.
That brings us to this year. Polling suggests that the divide in voting methodology may not be as wide as it was in 2020, thanks in part to the shift in the pandemic. YouGov polling conducted in early October found that about half of Republicans plan to vote in person on Election Day, compared to a third of Democrats. About 4 in 10 Democrats planned to vote by mail, compared with a quarter of Republicans.
But Jean-Pierre’s comment still evoked a backlash, helpfully compiled by Fox News. Many of the complaints suggested that election results were once known on Election Day itself, unlike now. Which, of course, is largely a straw man. We still know most results on election night, just not particularly close results. And in an era of sharp partisanship, we have a lot of close, high-stakes races. At the same time, we have expanded the ability of people to vote by mail, thereby making it easier to vote, though it means that many votes are counted more slowly. But whether this matters also depends on how close the race is. California has notoriously slow counting, but we still know a lot of results on election night because the days of counting mail ballots won’t affect results.
Again, there is nothing inherently suspicious about counting votes over a span of hours instead of minutes, and there has been no evidence offered to suggest that anything nefarious occurs. Even the most popular debunked theories from Trump and his allies about 2020 center on alleged “fraud” that occurred on or before Election Day.
But by elevating the post-election counting as suspicious or nefarious, those who are disadvantaged by post-Election-Day shifts can cast doubt on that disadvantage. In 2020, you’ll recall, Trump was all for continuing to count in Arizona for days on end, hoping that Joe Biden’s lead in the state would crumble. (It almost did.) Generally, though, Republicans are eager to make post-Election-Day counting seem dubious because it amplifies the idea that the original, friendlier results are the ones that should count.
It’s also important to recognize that, in some places, Republicans actively make the counting slower. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake summarized this in an article last week, showing how Republican legislatures had often implemented rules preventing election workers from getting mail ballots ready in advance. (In other words, to shift some of those millions of hours of work earlier in the process.) That happened in Pennsylvania both in 2020 and this year.
Consider the warning offered by the sole Republican commissioner on Philadelphia’s elections board.
“I want to be very clear that when there are conversations that occur later this evening about whether or not Philadelphia has counted all of their ballots,” Seth Bluestein said, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, “that the reason that some ballots would not be counted is that Republicans targeted Philadelphia — and only Philadelphia — to force us to conduct a procedure that no other county does.”
In other words, be wary if there are questions raised about the security of the vote in Philadelphia as votes from the city are slowly counted. They would have been done counting sooner had they been allowed to by Republican officials.
Tom Fitton is an activist who has been energetic in bolstering Trump’s politics. He offered a succinct response to Jean-Pierre’s articulation of the need to be patient in waiting for election results.
Counting ballots after Election Day undermines voter confidence. https://t.co/fqjYuq1RTa
— Tom Fitton (@TomFitton) November 7, 2022
Counting ballots after Election Day erodes voter confidence if you use the counting of ballots after Election Day as a tactic for eroding voter confidence. There is no practical difference between waiting three hours for 100 percent of precincts to report and waiting 24 hours for 100 percent of votes to be counted. There is a political difference, and that’s why Fitton and others insist on elevating it.