As we head into the final few weeks of a historic election season, here is what I’ll be paying attention to in the days before the election.
How will the campaigns play with undecided voters?
If you are someone who already knows who you are going to vote for and are committed to casting that vote, it’s important to remember that you are no longer the audience for either campaign. Instead, campaigns are focused on the narrow band of voters who can swing the election — the undecided voters, the swing voters, and the voters who might or might not go out and vote if no one reaches out to them.
Both campaigns will try to deal with this head-on as they transition to the get-out-the-vote phase of the election. You might experience this firsthand if someone stops by your door or calls you to ask detailed questions about how you plan to mail in your ballot or go to the polls. Campaigns do this simply because it works — research shows that asking someone their voting plan can double the chances that they’ll actually make it to the polls. These small, one-on-one conversations will be incredibly important in states like Pennsylvania where President Donald Trump won in 2016 by only 44,292 votes, an incredibly slim margin.
Beyond direct outreach, the theater of election season may also sway this set of voters. The president seems to be slipping in the polls after the first debate, and older voters are concerned about how he has handled the COVID-19 outbreak among White House staff.
The upcoming Senate debates about Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, could also serve as ammunition for voters to go in either direction. However, I mainly expect these issues to fire up the already-committed bases on both sides. But elections are often decided on the margins, and every vote will matter for the eventual winner.
How much will mail-in balloting matter for the outcome?
While the practice of voting by mail is nothing new, its scale will reach new heights in this election. Many states have rolled out new procedures for mail-in ballots in the era of COVID-19, while the Trump administration has engaged in legal battles to stop or limit the new procedures.
In some cases, the policies themselves may end up reducing the number of votes that actually count.
In Pennsylvania, there are concerns that “naked ballots” — completed ballots returned without the inner secrecy envelope and so discarded by election officials — will be 2020’s answer to Florida’s “hanging chads” of 2000.
At the same time, battles over the process for submitting ballots in places like Texas may reduce the overall number of voters who are able to successfully submit their ballots on time.
How will partisans handle the “blue shift” after Election Day?
In some states, ballots postmarked by Election Day, but not received that day, still will be counted. In Pennsylvania, the mailed ballots (postmarked by 8 p.m. Nov. 3) must be received by county election offices by 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6.
So the final outcome may not be known until after Nov. 3. More Democrats than Republicans are expected to vote by mail. So we may see a Trump lead on election night slowly dissolve in the face of a “blue shift” as more Democratic ballots are counted.
While there is little evidence of widespread voter fraud, many Trump supporters are concerned that alleged corruption in the mail-in voting system will be used to keep the president from securing a second term. If the race is close, I would suspect the “blue shift” of mail-in ballots could lead to political protest and disruption in the streets. This is an alarming prospect. It can be prevented if voters are urged to expect a delayed, and shifting, vote tally.
Who will win, and how will the winner be determined?
While it will generate a good deal of press, I do not expect the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Amy Coney Barrett will sway votes in any meaningful way. However, a close election will likely end up in the courts, where the U.S. Supreme Court may end up making the final decision. In such a case I would expect the court to vote along party lines (as most research indicates it usually does). If this happens, Barrett’s vote could be the deciding factor in a Trump victory.
In a close election, it is also possible that states could bypass the popular vote, with state houses directly appointing their own set of electors to the Electoral College. Such a move is ultimately up to the representatives in each state, but if the allegations of voter fraud build to a crescendo, in theory Harrisburg could challenge the outcome of the vote.
The next few weeks may not only challenge our electoral institutions, but also the norms of our democracy. For those of you invested in the outcome of this election, I would encourage you to get involved by volunteering with your party or a similar organization. We all should be invested to some degree, so please vote.
Brandon Koenig is assistant professor of government & public policy at Franklin & Marshall College.