834 days later

The first issue of Popular Information, published on July 23, 2018, was headlined "Ignore The Polls." We argued that in 2016, "the focus on polls, which reinforced the belief that Hillary Clinton would win in a walk, may have decreased turnout among Clinton supporters." 

If you've been reading this newsletter, you know that there is very little discussion of polling. That's not an accident. And a new academic study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, and Georgetown University, published last month, suggests that we were onto something

We use experiments to show that forecasting increases certainty about an election’s outcome, confuses many, and decreases turnout. Furthermore, we show that election forecasting has become prominent in the media, particularly in outlets with liberal audiences, and show that such coverage tends to more strongly affect the candidate who is ahead—raising questions about whether they contributed to Trump’s victory over Clinton in 2016. 

In our first edition, we also offered the following advice. 

There are 834 days until Election Day 2020. My humble suggestion: Ignore the polls. Spend your time learning and talking to people about issues that are important to you. Then vote.

This advice still holds. If you haven't voted, stop reading this newsletter and go directly to the polls. Then, ignore the exit polls, which are a particularly unreliable form of polling

We all want to know the outcome of the election. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut. We have to wait for the votes to be counted. How long will it take before enough votes are counted that we know the winner? Anywhere from a few hours to a few months. 

Today's newsletter contains some updates, context, and perspective to help you process what's about to happen. 

How and when votes are counted 

None of the results announced on election night are ever final. 

Instead, what is reported are “unofficial results” (i.e., partial counts and projections from newsrooms). In some states “unofficial results” on election night will reflect ballots that have been cast through in-person voting and have been counted so far. Absentee ballots are counted later. In other states, absentee ballots are counted ahead of Election Day and are included in their unofficial results. 

Typically, it takes days for election officials to tabulate processed ballots. States are not expected to report final results on election night and, in fact, never have. This year, given the surge in mail-in voting due to the pandemic, it will take longer than usual to count all the ballots.

Following an election, results are certified through a process known as “The Canvass.” During the Canvass, election officials will 1) count eligible outstanding ballots and 2) correct reporting errors in the unofficial results. This is to ensure that every valid ballot cast is counted and included in the official tally. Every year, the Canvass identifies errors in the unofficial results. This is not an indication of a broken or "rigged" election.

This process takes place in every state and occurs by a deadline determined by the state. In some states, the process takes a few days. Other states take several weeks. In the event of a close election, we will not learn the winner until key states complete their Canvass — or later.

Federal judge rejects effort to trash 127,000 votes in Texas

A very conservative federal judge in Texas, Andrew Hanen, rejected a last-ditch Republican effort to throw out 127,000 votes in Harris County, Texas. The case involved votes cast over the last two weeks at 10 drive-thru locations set up throughout the county. The locations allowed Texans to vote without leaving their cars.

Hanen rejected the case, brought by "a wealthy conservative activist, a Republican state representative and two GOP candidates," finding they didn't have "standing" to file the case. At issue, according to the judge, was their failure to articulate a specific harm. Even if these locations didn't comply with the law, the plaintiffs couldn't describe how it harmed them.

But Hanen also said that, even if the plaintiffs had standing, he would have ruled against them. He found that the county was within its rights to create the drive-thru locations under Texas law. He found that the tents qualified as a "structure," which is what is required in early voting. 

There was one small caveat. Hanen said that if the plaintiffs had standing, he would have enjoined drive-thru voting on Election Day. Texas law, Hanen said, is slightly different on Election Day and requires voting to take place in a building. He said a tent qualifies as a "structure" but not a "building." Hanen advised voters in Texas not to vote at drive-thrus on Election Day so they can be sure their vote will be counted. 

Overall, it was a much-needed victory for voting rights. The case could theoretically be appealed. But after related failures in the Texas Supreme Court and the federal court, the chances of success at this point are very small. 

The potential legal battles ahead

If the results are close enough that the outcome of one or more decisive states is uncertain, the battle will continue in the courts. This isn't speculation — Trump has said he plans to start filing more lawsuits as soon as the voting ends. "We’re going to go in the night of, as soon as that election is over, we’re going in with our lawyers," Trump said on Sunday.

Prior to the election, Republicans focused on challenging methods of voting, like drive-thru voting in Texas and various expansions of mail-in voting across the country. After election day, the focus will shift to invalidating individual ballots. 

One form of challenge, telegraphed by Republicans, is seeking to invalidate ballots that arrive after election day. This could be a major issue in Pennsylvania, the state most likely to decide the outcome. Right now, ballots that arrive before November 6 will be accepted. But the Supreme Court may consider a challenge to late-arriving ballots after Election Day. This could also be an issue in Texas, Minnesota, and Iowa.

Another way Republicans may try to invalidate ballots is by challenging the validity of signatures on absentee ballots. In Nevada, Republicans filed a request for "every Clark County voter’s signature on their returned ballot and a copy of whatever signature on file that was used to check their signature."

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