Media outlets, political leaders should set public expectations early for a shift in vote counts

A new report suggests substantial vote shifts following election night could affect the outcome of the election.

President Donald Trump may have an apparent lead over former Vice President Joe Biden at the end of election night, yet solidly lose by the end of that week, according to a new report led by researchers from Rutgers University–New Brunswick, Northeastern, Harvard and Northwestern universities.

Researchers say that media outlets and political figures should alert the public to this possibility in advance so there is a clear understanding of these implications on election night and the days that follow as swing-state mail-in votes are counted.

Katherine Ognyanova
Katherine Ognyanova is a co-author on the new report and assistant professor of communication.

“The size of these shifts will depend on several factors: differences in rates of voting by mail between Trump and Biden supporters; when people mail in their ballots; and each state’s rules for receiving and counting votes cast by mail,” said co-author Katherine Ognyanova, an assistant professor of communication at Rutgers University–New Brunswick’s School of Communication and Information.

Given the current election procedures and delays in counting mail ballots, the ‘blue shift’ seems especially likely in the key battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin,” Ognyanova said.

The report was published by The COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States.

According to the researchers, Texas, North Carolina, Alaska, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nevada are the most likely states to have substantial vote shifts toward Biden, potentially shifting both the Electoral College and popular votes. All nine states allow mail-in ballots to arrive after Election Day or do not start counting until Election Day. With an unprecedented number of mail-in votes, many states will face the logistical challenge of counting ballots.

The survey shows there are considerable differences in candidate preference among Americans planning to vote in person and vote by mail. In-person voters are more likely to support Trump, while those who plan to cast mail-in ballots lean toward Biden.

Trump leads by 68 percent to 23 percent among those who say they are “very unlikely” to vote by mail and by 50 percent to 39 percent among all but those who say they are “very likely” to vote by mail. Biden, however, leads among all likely voters by 50 percent to 40 percent.

“We strongly recommend that media outlets and political figures set public expectations accordingly in advance,” said Ognyanova. “If Americans take election night results as final, the later swing as mail votes are counted could undermine public belief in the legitimacy of the election." 

The COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States is a joint project of Rutgers University, Northeastern University, Harvard University and Northwestern University. The consortium has released sixteen reports and has charted public opinion related to COVID-19 topics since late April. 

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