The “Red Mirage” (also known as the “Blue Shift”) is a potential 2020 election scenario in which President Trump will appear to be ahead on Election Night when the returns are first reported, only to then fall behind — and ultimately lose to — Vice President Biden as all the mail ballots are counted in the days (and potentially weeks) after November 3rd.
This outcome is particularly concerning because the progression of the overall count would superficially appear to coincide with the President’s rhetoric about the Democrats’ plan to use mail-in voting to “steal the election”.
In reality, this “red mirage” / “blue shift” need not be the result of any sort of maleficence or fraud. It is instead explained by three key factors:
1) historic levels of mail voting,
2) election laws in several crucial swing states (PA, MI, WI) that do not provide sufficient time for the counting/processing of mail ballots before election day, and
3) a distinct partisan split between “by mail” (overwhelmingly Democratic) vs. election day (overwhelmingly Republican) voters.
1. Mail Voting
In lieu of going to their polling place on election day, many registered voters in the United States also have the option to “vote early” either in person or by mail. This latter option is most commonly known as voting “absentee” or voting “by mail.” To be clear, every state sets its own rules related to election administration and as a result, there are a diversity of early voting policies used in different states throughout the country. For example, some states like Utah and Oregon use an entirely “vote by mail” program in which all registered voters are automatically sent a mail ballot, which is then filled out by the voter and returned by mail or physically dropped off at a specified location (election office, dropbox, etc.). Others only offer an absentee by mail option for voters who can provide a state-approved “excuse” for why they will be unable to vote in-person on election day. Finally, a number of states have substantially tweaked the original absentee concept, and allow for “no excuse” absentee voting, in which any registered voter can request a mail ballot without providing a reason.
Following the outbreak of COVID-19, many states modified their absentee laws to permit more flexible standards for voting by mail. For the 2020 presidential election, only five states (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Indiana) will still require an excuse to vote absentee. Thus, given the COVID related health dangers posed by in person voting for many citizens this fall, and the related widespread loosening of certain absentee voting requirements, the country is posed to vote by mail in truly unprecedented numbers in the upcoming 2020 election. In 2016, 33 million Americans voted by mail; in 2020, that number is projected to skyrocket to over 80 million. Notably, the unprecedented increase in the quantity of mail-in ballots –and some states’ failure to adjust procedures accordingly — will serve as one of the main drivers in any Red Mirage scenario.
2. Counting/Processing Mail Ballot Laws in WI, MI, PA
In 2020, if the Presidency again hinges on close races in MI, WI, and PA:
- We won’t have a projected winner on election night
- If Biden wins, then there will likely be some sort of red mirage that is significantly featured during election “week”
Why? As things currently stand, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan are all slow counting states — most notably due to the fact that they either only allow less than 1 day (MI), or do not allow any (WI/PA) pre-election day processing of mail ballots.
Previously, the lack of early processing time in these states has not posed a significant problem — in 2018, around one quarter of the votes in Michigan — and only around 5% of all votes in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — were cast via mail ballot. However, due to the impact of COVID-19 discussed above, mail ballots are projected to make up around 50% of the total votes received in WI, MI, and PA this fall. Although public officials have long known that absentee voting demand would skyrocket for the upcoming Presidential election, state legislatures in these three states have each failed to sufficiently update their counting and processing laws to properly account for this reality.
In Michigan, lawmakers recently moved back the processing start date from November 3rd at 7am to November 2nd at 10am in cities or townships with at least 25,000 residents. Although this is an improvement over simply preserving the status quo, it falls well short of the seven day minimum head start that the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Elections recommends, or the two weeks+ many of their fellow swing states (ex: AZ, NC, FL, etc.) permit. Consequently, Michigan will not have a declared winner on election night — state officials have expressed confidence that they will have “unofficial statewide results” available by November 6th.
In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, election administrators still may not begin processing mail ballots until election day . So it could be at least a few days after November 3rd until all the ballots get counted in these two pivotal states. Interestingly, officials in WI have expressed optimism that they will have results on November 4th — Gov. Evers recently remarked that he “believe[d] that we will be able to know the results of the Wisconsin election, hopefully that night and maybe at the latest the very next day”. In Pennsylvania, widely considered to be the single most important state in tipping the balance of the 2020 election, there is less optimism. In addition to their late start on on the front end of the counting process, PA absentee ballots can also be delivered as late as November 6th, further elongating the counting process. Thus, if things go like they did in PA’s primary earlier this summer, it may take multiple days, and potentially even longer, to get all the results in.
A Partisan Divide — Early Voting vs. Election Day
In addition to the exponential increase in the number of people voting by mail in November and the inadequate amount of time election administrators have to process/count these ballots in key swing states (WI/PA/MI), the distinct partisan split between those planning to vote by mail (Democrats) vs. on election day/in-person (Republicans) is the final essential factor in explaining the driving forces behind a potential “red mirage.”
According to an August survey of likely voters by NBC News:
“Supporters of Democratic candidate Joe Biden are significantly more likely than Trump backers to say they plan to vote by mail. Nearly half (47%) say they plan to mail in their ballot, with an additional 21 % saying they will cast a vote before Election Day at an early in-person voting site. Only about a quarter of Biden voters, 26 %, plan to vote on Election Day at a polling place. In contrast, two-thirds of Trump’s voters — 66 % — say they will vote in person on Election Day. Just 11 percent say they plan to vote by mail, and 20 percent say they will vote early in person.“
In September, a NYT/Siena poll identified a similar sentiment among likely voters in key swing states across the country: “Just 26% of Democrats said they planned to vote in person on Election Day, compared with 56 % of Republicans, according to polling of likely voters in 11 battleground states.”
In a survey from September 30 – October 5th, Pew Research Center identified Trump voters as still more inclined to vote on election day, and Biden voters with a continued preference to vote by mail:
“Trump supporters are more than twice as likely as Biden supporters to say they plan to vote in person on Election Day (50% vs. 20%). By contrast, 51% of Biden supporters say they plan to vote by mail or absentee (or have already voted this way). A quarter of Trump supporters (25%) say they plan to vote by mail or absentee. “
Finally, a NPR/PBS/Marist poll conducted early-mid October :
“showed voters planning to vote in person supported Trump 62-35%, while those planning to vote by mail backed Biden 73-23%. And voters planning to cast their ballot at an early voting location favored Biden over Trump 65-32%. In all, the poll found, 65% of Trump voters intended to cast their ballots on election day in person. Biden voters were more split, with 43% planning to vote by mail, 26% at an early voting location and 29% in person on election day.“
This partisan outlook on voting by mail vs. voting on election day has not only emerged as a consistent theme in public polling, but has also been supported by actual early voting returns.
To be clear, both parties have actually pushed their respective bases to consider alternatives to their general preferred methods of voting in order to either avoid “lost” votes (Ds) or boost turnout (Rs). For those on the left, concerns related to USPS delays and increased rates of rejected absentee ballots has led Democratic party leadership to encourage voting early in person if possible. On the other side, Republicans have sought to reassure and encourage skeptical GOP voters that it is in fact safe to cast an absentee ballot — a tricky task given the President’s barrage of unsubstantiated attacks on the practice.
Yet, the overall partisan dynamics still hold — put simply, Biden voters are overwhelmingly more likely to vote prior to election day, while the majority of Trump voters prefer to do so in person on November 3rd. As a result, should the election come down to “slow-counting” states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the initial returns would likely appear to show Trump in an advantageous position to win the election based on election day turnout. However, as the mail ballots are counted in the days that follow, the President’s lead would evaporate and potentially lead to a Democratic victory.
Drawing all this together, a Red Mirage will be caused by:
1) a historically high quantity of mail-in votes;
2) states’ inability, or intentional reluctance, to amend their laws related to allow for sufficient pre-election day processing/counting of mail-in votes; and
3) the electorate’s polarized preferences for mail-in vs. in-person voting.
A brief summary of this concept, applied to the upcoming election, is provided below.
If Biden needs WI, MI, or PA to get to 270, then a red-mirage is likely.
The mail-in votes in these states are skewed heavily democratic, and the in-person vote skew Republican. Due to the slow processing/counting dynamic discussed above, the counts displayed on election night will likely show Trump initially leading by a decent margin. In order to further undermine the legitimacy of the voting process, the President and partisan news stations may also try to initially claim victory based on this initial lead on election night — despite knowing that many votes remain uncounted. However, as all the mail in votes are counted, Vice President Biden’s numbers will continue to improve, and will probably be large enough to overcome the deficit presented in the initial returns.