Hawkfish: Anticipating a Potentially Epic Ballot Counting Disaster - McDermott+Consulting

Hawkfish: Anticipating a Potentially Epic Ballot Counting Disaster

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Below you will find links to three articles that paint a picture of a potentially chaotic election night. How seriously should you take predictions of chaos? It really comes down to whether Joe Biden is seen to be clearly winning swing states, with Florida arguably being the bellwether. But if the election outcome is as close as it was in 2016 in key states, concern is very appropriate.

Let’s talk about November 3. Not November 3, 2020. Let’s talk about November 3, 1992. At 11:15 pm on November 3, 1992, President George H. W. Bush gave his speech conceding the election to then-Governor Bill Clinton. Can you even imagine what it must have been like to be able to watch the speeches and then catch David Letterman?

We have had several extremely close elections since 1992. It took quite a while to sort out the 2000 election. The elections in 2004, 2012 and 2016 were very close, but were settled late on election night. This November 3 has the potential to be extraordinarily chaotic and may have a significant effect on our politics in the aftermath.

The “Hawkfish Problem”

The Hawkfish data project has produced a theory that is deeply disconcerting for election night. Simplified, the group believes that a significant proportion of the Democratic vote will occur by mail, leaving in-person voting on Election Day to over-represent the Republican vote. Essentially, there is a possibility that President Donald Trump could be shown as ahead in far more states on election night than he will ultimately win when the ballot count is completed.

A Typical Election Night

We have grown accustomed to what television networks produce for us on election night. The clock strikes the top of the hour. Polls have now closed in certain states. Cue the dramatic music. Then the announcement. This network is declaring this state for this candidate. Over and over again throughout the night. These announcements are a function of exit polling done in the states. Exit polls provide networks the ability to call races long before all the ballots are counted.

Exit Polling

On Election Day, pollsters will ask voters detailed questions about who they voted for and why, along with demographic information that allows us to have incredible insight into the election. These exit polls provide information to the networks that enables them to predict that a candidate has won a state before any votes have been counted. If the Hawkfish problem is real and the Democratic vote disproportionately occurs by mail, exit polling may not produce accurate predictions of the ultimate outcome, because the pollsters will not survey an adequate sample of the voters who were not present in-person.

The November 3 Nightmare

Democratic campaigns at both the national level and the state level will be acutely aware of the Hawkfish problem. They will have extensively lobbied the networks to be conservative in how they approach election night. While being conservative in calling state races may be totally appropriate, it could lead to a public perception that may have an impact on our politics for years to come.

Calling a Blue State

It’s election night. The polls have closed in Vermont. Hillary Clinton won the state by 26 points four years ago. You can pretty much bet the farm that Biden will win Vermont. How clearly must exit polls show Biden winning Vermont for the networks to call the state for him? How clear do early results coming in from the field need to be to confirm Biden winning the state? What if the early results of ballot counting on November 3 shows Biden up a mere 10 points? While it may be intuitively obvious that Biden will win Vermont, the standard that networks use to declare a winner may not be the same as the standard they use for red states.

Calling a Red State

Trump is going to win West Virginia. He won it by 42 points four years ago. The exit polling and early results will likely confirm that expectation. How quickly will the networks come to that conclusion? Quicker than Biden winning Vermont? Trump is likely to win South Carolina. He won the state by 14 points four years ago. If exit polling and early results show him winning, but the margin is eight points, will networks be comfortable calling the state for him? Given an expectation that mail-in voting is likely to be heavily Democratic? It is implausible that any network will end November 3 with Trump as the overall winner, even if he does ultimately win.

The Debacle Begins

The examples used above are all in the Eastern Time Zone. If the Hawkfish problem comes true, the viewing public will see the networks tied in knots trying to determine what to tell viewers when the returns are speaking for themselves. Confusion will begin in the east and continue as the sun sets across the rest of the United States.

Networks are likely to call traditionally blue states in the Northeast for Biden. But outside of the Northeast, the vote count in states all the way to the Mississippi River will likely favor Trump. Viewers will watch states called for Biden while far fewer states will be called for Trump, although the vote count will clearly show him ahead. If the votes cast by Democrats are skewed disproportionately to mail-in ballots, it is not outlandish to think that early voting results could put Trump ahead in every state west of New York—other than Illinois—until we reach the states that border the Pacific. Even Nevada and New Mexico could look red on election night if enough Democrats vote by mail.

Trump is not going to win Nevada or New Mexico. The process by which mail-in votes are tallied could take days. Some states do allow for votes cast by mail to be counted before Election Day, while others allow them to be counted on Election Day. How those votes are processed and displayed will also have an impact on public perception. Imagine, for example, Trump being ahead in Virginia, and Fairfax County reporting votes cast by mail. In a blink, Trump will have gone from winning to losing handily.

As more mail-in votes are counted in the days following the election, Trump won’t win any new states. Instead, Trump and his supporters will watch as vote counting turns state after state from red to blue. Legal challenges are certain to ensue. While this process should be expected to produce an accurate outcome, that doesn’t mean that it will not leave scars. Or worse.

The Impact on Legitimacy

When all of the ballots are counted, it is quite conceivable that Biden could win 26 states and Washington, DC, with 353 electoral votes. Remember, Barack Obama won by an even wider margin in 2008. But that victory was obvious on election night. Given the incredibly polarized nature of our politics and increasingly polarized nature of our media, watching results that at midnight on November 3 looked like a Trump landslide turn into a Biden landslide over the following week may leave Trump supporters (and the president himself, if you are to believe the Atlantic story) questioning the legitimacy of the election. There should be no expectation that Trump himself will do anything other than fan those flames. Anticipating and preparing for the days and weeks that follow November 3 as though this scenario could come true is far better than being surprised by it.

Wake Up from the Nightmare (Thank You Sunshine State!)

It is not a certainty that a ballot counting debacle will happen. Mail-in ballot counting could take hours, not days, in critical states. The election could swing significantly enough to Biden that the map on election night doesn’t look as red as the Hawkfish problem might predict. The one real possibility that could turn the Hawkfish nightmare into simply a bad dream is the outcome in Florida. Florida is allowed to open and count mail-in ballots prior to the election. If Biden is shown to be significantly ahead of Trump in Florida as ballots are counted, it would be a signal that Biden is highly likely to win the state and the Electoral College. The math for Trump to win the Electoral College without Florida is almost impossible. If Biden is seen to be obviously winning Florida, it could undermine any argument the incumbent might make about a stolen election.

Implications for 2021 and Beyond

We hope that the election does not produce a worst-case scenario. But if it does, the consequences will be severe. It was not so long ago that the ability to achieve bipartisan compromise in Washington was considered a virtue, not a vice. There is a probability that the election will be preceded by a vicious fight over a Supreme Court confirmation. If that fight is then followed by a contentious ballot counting process that leads to accusations of a stolen election, the grounds for bipartisanship and compromise are likely to be barren. If much of the Republican base believes that the 2020 election was stolen, any Republican seeking a leadership role in the future of the party will have to appeal to the base by mirroring their outrage. Working in collaboration with the Democratic majority that is believed to have stolen the election will not be considered an asset.

Democrats will take power having suffered the outrages of the Trump Administration, culminating in a bruising Supreme Court confirmation battle. The Democratic base will accept nothing other than the complete subjugation of the minority. Any Democrats that might challenge that approach risk retribution in a primary. We will quickly move to majoritarian government. While the failure of our majoritarian government to move its agenda will not lead to the collapse of the government and a new election as it would in a parliamentary system, we should have every reason to believe that the parties will now act as though they are part of majoritarian government with all key issues.

It was not so long ago that we held elections and had winners and losers. The legitimacy of the winners was rarely questioned. The winners went on to govern within the rules of our system, which require both sides to find common ground to make the policies that govern our nation. The last 20 years has seen a painful deterioration in that conventional understanding of how our system is supposed to work. We are at great risk in this election for an outcome that changes the way we look at our government.


For more information, contact Rodney Whitlock.