Some Democrats warn Trump may use 'red mirage' to prematurely declare victory while absentee ballots are being counted

WASHINGTON – In battleground states that will decide the presidential race Nov. 3, Democrats have embraced a turnout strategy tailored for the COVID-19 pandemic: urging supporters to request mail ballots and return them right away.

But before mail voting kicks off Friday in North Carolina, some party operatives warned that a heavy reliance on mail ballots could carry risks and encouraged people who are healthy to consider voting in person. 

Polling shows Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a decisive mail-voting advantage: The former vice president's supporters are twice as likely to vote by mail than those of President Donald Trump. Democrats worry that misleading signals could emerge on election night if Trump builds an initial lead with in-person votes even as he lags Biden on mail ballots, which take longer to count.

They fear Trump, who claims mail voting is rife with fraud, might try to cast doubt on the validity of uncounted mail ballots, setting the stage for chaos and lengthy legal battles in the aftermath of the election.

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In a report released Tuesday, Hawkfish, a Democratic-aligned data and technology firm founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, warned of a "red mirage" on election night in which Trump will appear ahead even if he's not. Only as more mail-in ballots are reflected in the count, the group said, "will this red mirage dissipate, and Biden’s lead materialize."

“We can anticipate that the president and at least Fox News likely, but many others, are going to declare victory at that point,” said Ellen Konar, the group's vice president of voter research. “They're not going to say, ‘Oh, let's hold off. We don't have all the ballots in.’ ”

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's supporters are more likely than President Trump's to vote by mail.

As part of his attack on vote by mail, Trump suggested Wednesday that voters in North Carolina test their state's election system by voting once by mail, then trying to vote a second time in person. North Carolina's State Board of Elections issued a statement making clear it's illegal to vote twice, to attempt to vote twice and to solicit someone to vote twice.

Biden leads Trump nationally in a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll, 50% to 43%, and in nine out of 11 battleground states, according to Morning Consult. But the race remains fluid. Biden's 7-percentage-point advantage in the USA TODAY/Suffolk poll is narrower than the 12-point lead he held in the survey in June.

Polls in battleground states show tight races. If that remains the case on Nov. 3, it could take days for the results to emerge. 

In several states not accustomed to high volumes of mail-in voting, including Rust Belt swing states Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, election officials cannot start counting ballots until voting ends on election night. Other swing states, such as Minnesota, allow absentee ballots to be postmarked up to Election Day.

That means partial results released on election night in these states – though not official until all votes are counted and certified – will include mostly votes cast in person early or on Election Day. Polling shows Trump has a major advantage in the latter category. Days or even weeks could be required for some states to count all mail-in votes, which are likely to heavily favor Democrats.

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Hawkfish's objectives: Prepare the public for such scenarios, call media and pundits to "engage wisely and cautiously" and encourage Democrats and others backing Biden to rethink how they intend to vote.

"If you have developed antibodies to the virus or you feel comfortable being at a voting place," Konar said, that's one way to make sure "your vote will be in the initial count."

Hawkfish, although not formally affiliated with the Biden campaign, works for the pro-Biden Super PACs Unite Our Country and American Bridge, as well as the Democratic National Committee.

Other prominent Democrats have voiced similar concerns, underscoring fear about a contested election. "This is what sets up potential disaster," David Axelrod, former adviser to President Barack Obama, tweeted last month, "with Trump claiming fraud as the count turns against him."

Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee, said Trump hopes to "get a narrow advantage in the Electoral College on Election Day," putting an emphasis on "Election Day." She stressed that absentee ballots will be still left to count.

"Joe Biden should not concede under any circumstances," Clinton said in an interview last week on "The Circus" on Showtime, "because I think this is going to drag out."

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Votes counted late skewed toward Democrats in '18

Even before the 2020 cycle, absentee and provisional ballots counted late skewed toward Democrats. They have often turned deficits for Democratic candidates into leads, so much so that the phenomenon was given a name: the "blue shift."

During the 2018 midterms, Democrats expanded their new majority days and weeks after Election Day. In Arizona, Republican Senate candidate Martha McSally, initially ahead on election night, conceded after Kyrsten Sinema picked up an additional 70,000 votes through mail. 

Late-counted votes are likely to tilt even more heavily for Democrats in November. Democrats are more inclined to vote by mail for health reasons than Republicans amid Trump's barrage of attacks on the integrity of mail-voting.

The president claims voting by mail is likely to lead to widespread voter fraud, though evidence from elections has shown that is not the case.

An analysis from the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice found 491 cases of absentee voter fraud out of billions of votes cast across all U.S. elections from 2000 to 2012.

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Joe Wlos, data scientist at Hawkfish, said the election is poised for an "intensification of the blue shift."

Hawkfish researchers mapped out different scenarios including 40% of mail ballots counted on Election Day, giving Trump only temporary leads in states that he eventually loses, and as few as 15% of mail ballots counted. The latter could stretch the "blue shift" out for a month or more.

A scenario from Hawkfish says that if only 15% of mail-in votes are counted on Election Day, President Donald Trump would be ahead in all battleground states even if Joe Biden ultimately won by a considerable margin in both the Electoral College and popular vote.

Edward Foley, an election law professor at Ohio State, who coined the term "blue shift" after identifying a trend that started in 2004, said at least six states, perhaps even 10, could be susceptible to substantial late vote swings toward Biden. 

"Really, across the range of battleground states, the president could be ahead on election night, and yet many of those states – you wouldn't know until you actually finish counting the votes – might be subject to some slippage," Foley said.

“I think the campaigns have to think strategically what they want to do,” he said. “But it wouldn't be crazy for a campaign that was concerned about this to think, ‘Well, should we try to persuade voters to vote in person?’ ”

President Donald Trump says mail-in voting is vulnerable to widespread fraud, though an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice found little evidence of that in previous elections.

Biden campaign manager pushes back at post-election theories

The Biden campaign said it wants supporters to choose the voting option that makes them the most comfortable. 

Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon told USA TODAY the campaign has a "state-by-state" strategy tailored to different guidelines, electorates and rules. She said it differs in a state such as Arizona, where 70% of the electorate typically votes absentee, versus North Carolina, which offers a long period of in-person early voting.

She pushed back on the premise that Trump will win the Election Day vote while Biden carries absentee votes. Although the campaign encourages early voting, she said its research shows not all Biden supporters will default to vote-by-mail; many will vote early in person and others on Nov. 3.

"I feel pretty comfortable that we're actually going to have a multi-pronged effort," she said. 

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O'Malley Dillon countered speculation that Trump might try to discredit mail votes.

"First and foremost, any vote that is voted by mail in this country, as long as it abides by the rules in the state, will be one that is counted," she said. "I think it's really important that we disaggregate this narrative that Trump could make it seem like he won when he didn't win.

"Of course, we are very conscientious of the fact that there is no bottom when it comes to Donald Trump and what he'll try to do," she said, so the campaign is "doing everything on the front end" through litigation, education and other means to fight GOP efforts to make it harder to vote by mail.

Election experts told the public to prepare for "election week" or even "weeks" and to not expect a winner on election night.

"It's not fraud. It's not anything going wrong," Foley said. "This is a byproduct of well-intentioned reforms. There's nothing nefarious about it. It's just the system working as designed."

No presidential winner on election night? Mail-in ballots could put outcome in doubt for weeks

Trump warned delays and fraud would produce "the greatest election disaster in history" and decried the time it could take to count mail ballots. "You won’t know the election results for weeks, months, maybe years after. Maybe you’ll never know the election result," he said in July.

Thea McDonald, the Trump campaign's deputy national press secretary, said in a statement that before Democrats "peddle another unsubstantiated conspiracy theory," they ought to "take responsibility for their attempts to throw our electoral system into chaos."

Mail-ballot requests from Democrats dwarf Republicans'

In Pennsylvania – a state Trump won in 2016 but where polling shows him behind – nearly 900,000 Democrats have requested a mail ballot for the election, more than twice the 347,000 Republicans who have done so. In North Carolina, another state Trump won in 2016 but where he and Biden are in a close race, nearly 313,000 Democrats requested mail ballots compared with nearly 93,000 Republicans. 

Democrats boasted 600,000 more ballot requests in Florida's primary election than Republicans last month, even though Republicans once dominated the method in the state. Unlike states where expanded mail-voting is new, Florida is among those that start counting absentee voting before Election Day, making absentee ballots among the first reported on election night.

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Poll:Half of Americans fear difficulties voting in November election

Forty-seven percent of voters who plan to vote for Biden say they are likely to vote by mail, according to a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll released Wednesday. That's more than double the 21% of voters backing Trump who say they are likely to vote by mail. The poll found 56% of Republicans say they intend to vote on Election Day, compared with 26% of Democrats.

In Wisconsin, a critical battleground state that Trump narrowly won in 2016, a Marquette University poll found 81% of the state's voters who plan to vote by mail support Biden compared with 14% for Trump. It found 67% of voters who intend to vote on Election Day plan to vote for Trump and 26% for Biden. 

North Carolina Democratic Party chairman Wayne Goodwin said the disparity in the Tar Heel state reflects an "enthusiasm gap," and Trump's rhetoric on mail voting is "backfiring."

"Our message is that there are three safe and secure ways to vote, no matter what President Trump says," Goodwin said – by mail, in person on Election Day and in person early. He said Trump was "crying foul" even before he won the 2016 election and called his latest attacks on mail voting "a shameful and shameless strategy of his to question the election outcome."

"We Democrats, we're going to turn out our vote in a way that the outcome can't be questioned legitimately," he said. "That's our goal."

More:Biden voters twice as likely than Trump supporters to vote by mail in November, survey finds

For some Trump critics, the massive disparities are cause for concern.

This summer, the Transition Integrity Project, bipartisan but critical of Trump, assembled about 70 law professors, retired military officers, former senior U.S. officials, political strategists and attorneys on Zoom to explore how the election could turn into a post-election crisis. 

They conducted simulations known as "war games." In each election scenario, including a close Biden win, the group envisioned Trump discrediting mail ballots not counted on Election Day. The group warned of Trump prematurely declaring victory on election night and suggested Trump could try to halt counting of mail-in ballots. 

"One thing I can guarantee you is, if it's at all close, there's going to be massive amounts of legal contestation," said Nils Gilman, a co-founder of the project and a scholar at the Berggruen Institute, a think tank focused on governance. "He can run out the clock. The strategy can be to simply hold up the process."

'Get that ballot early, get it voted, get it returned'

Echoing the Biden campaign, party leaders in critical swing states said they aren't thinking about such scenarios – nor do they care how their supporters cast ballots, as long as they follow through.

"The heart of the conversations our organizers are having right now with voters is all about making a plan to vote," said David Bergstein, the DNC's director of battleground state communications, whether that's by mail, early or "in some cases, putting on a mask and voting in person."

"Those of us who work in competitive state elections know that different states report results on different timelines, and it doesn't always line up perfectly with cable news coverage," he said. 

Wisconsin Democrats have a pending lawsuit against the state that seeks to move up when ballots can start being counted, among other changes to accommodate more mail voting. 

Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Ben Wikler, whose state will begin sending absentee ballots to voters Sept. 17, said, "The crucial thing in this election, or any other, is winning the most votes and making sure votes are counted." He said all Americans should know that votes cast absentee – "like Donald Trump's own votes" in Florida – are secure and legitimate. 

In Michigan, Democratic-backed legislation would allow clerks to begin the prework for counting absentee ballots before Election Day, but it has not advanced in the Legislature. Michigan will start sending mail ballots to voters who asked for one Sept. 24. 

State Democratic Party chairwoman Lavora Barnes said the message remains the same: "Get that ballot early, get it voted, get it returned to the clerk's office or ballot return boxes."

She said it wouldn't make sense to speculate what Trump might do.

"Whatever we do, whatever we try to anticipate, this president's going to say it's wrong, say it's illegal, say that it's somehow inappropriate because he's going to lose," Barnes said. "There's not much I can do other than make sure he loses."

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.