Scenarios for how an election disaster could unfold in the United States next week involve lawsuits, lost ballots, armed insurrection and other potential crises in thousands of local jurisdictions on 3 November.
But there is one much simpler scenario for election-night chaos, centering on a single address, that many analysts see as among the most plausible.
The scenario can be averted, election officials say, by heightening public awareness about it – and by cautioning vigilance against carefully targeted lies that Donald Trump has already begun to tell.
Known as the “red mirage”, the scenario could develop if Trump appears to be leading in the presidential race late on election night and declares victory before all the votes are counted.
The red mirage “sounds like a super-villain, and it’s just as insidious”, the former Obama administration housing secretary Julían Castro says in a video recorded as a public service announcement to voters this week.
“On election night, there’s a real possibility that the data will show Republicans leading early, before all the votes are counted. Then they can pretend something sinister’s going on when the counts change in Democrats’ favor.”
In the scenario, Trump’s declaration of victory is echoed on the conservative TV network Fox News and by powerful Republicans across the US. By the time final returns show that in fact Joe Biden has won the presidency, perhaps days later, the true election result has been dragged into a maelstrom of disinformation and chaos.
To some officials, the scenario is too realistic for words. A potential multi-day delay in counting votes is anticipated in Philadelphia, whose mostly Democratic votes are crucial for Biden to win in Pennsylvania, currently the state the quants see as most likely to tip the election one way or the other.
After counting only 6,000 absentee ballots in the 2016 election, the city of Philadelphia, where Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one, expects to receive and count as many as 400,000 mail-in ballots this year, with the coronavirus pandemic raging.
All of those ballots will be counted inside the city’s cavernous convention center on Arch Street, beginning at 7am on the day of the election, by an army of poll workers, including many new recruits, using recently purchased equipment.
The delay that officials know will be required to finish the counting could be enough time for Trump to sow doubt about the result, an effort the president has already begun.
“Bad things happen in Philadelphia,” Trump said at the first presidential debate in September, warning about “tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated” and “urging my people” to watch polling sites carefully, despite there being no evidence of widespread fraud in US elections.
Current and former Pennsylvania officials and activists say that the antidote to the “red mirage” is as simple as the scenario itself.
The public must understand, these officials say, that Philadelphia will not be able to report its election result on the night of 3 November, and may not be able to do so for days afterward, owing to the extraordinary circumstances that the pandemic has wrought.
In turn, the surge of Democratic votes out of Philadelphia, when they do land, will probably create the perception of a huge swing in the state to Biden. And finally, that swing could well be large enough to erase a lead that Trump might build up in rural counties elsewhere in the state – to appear to turn Pennsylvania from “red” to “blue” – and to potentially decide the entire election.
“All votes will not be counted by midnight on November 3,” said Tom Ridge, a former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and homeland security secretary under George W Bush who decries Trump’s “absolutely despicable conduct and rhetoric” about the election.
“Because of Covid-19, there’ll be millions of mail-in votes that it’ll take several days to tally,” Ridge said in a phone interview. “One of the ways to reduce the anxiety level is to remind Americans of that reality, and call for peace and patience so that every vote can be counted.”
The blood-curdling thing about the red-mirage scenario, for some analysts, is that some aspects of it look more like a certainty than a scenario.
People should know that there will not be a result on election night
“People should know that there will not be a result on election night,” said Lisa Deeley, chair of a three-member panel of Philadelphia city commissioners that runs the election. “So people will go to bed and we won’t have that count finished. But we will be working continuously, through the night, to make sure we get that count as quickly and accurately – we won’t sacrifice accuracy for speed.”
“The key term is ‘election week’,” said Patrick Christmas, policy director of the non-partisan Committee of Seventy good government organization in Philadelphia. “There’s no longer going to be an election day here.”
As plausible as it is, however, there are also many reasons why a “red mirage” scenario might not unfold. Biden could put the race away with a win earlier on election night in a key battleground state such as Florida. Or Biden could win the state of Pennsylvania, where he leads by 6 points in polling averages, without needing the last 200,000 or so votes out of Philadelphia.
Alternatively, a “red mirage” for Trump might develop elsewhere in the country, outside of Philadelphia – anywhere that a big city in a swing state, from Milwaukee to Miami to Cleveland, ends up taking a long time to report results.
But the enormous task that Philadelphia faces in counting an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots while observing social distancing and other coronavirus mitigation measures means the city is in a uniquely difficult spot.
Making life more difficult for Philadelphia election officials, negotiations broke down last week between the state’s Republican-led legislature and the Democratic governor to allow the processing of mail-in ballots – meaning removing the ballots from their envelopes and smoothing them for insertion into counting machines – before election day itself.
Florida allows weeks for such early processing, as do North Carolina, Arizona and other battleground states, making it possible for those states to report results promptly on election night. Wisconsin, another key battleground, does not have early processing, while Michigan allows just one day for early processing.
“It’s very sad to me, it’s very troubling, that the political parties couldn’t agree on this,” said Ridge, who is involved in two bipartisan organizations to secure the ballot, Vote Safe and the National Council for Election Integrity.
At the Pennsylvania convention center in downtown Philadelphia, mail-in ballots are already on site, under lock and key, waiting for election day.
Promptly at 7am, officials will begin to feed the ballots into new extraction machines that use suction cups to open the ballots’ outer envelopes so that officials can remove an inner privacy envelope containing the ballot. Then the ballot must pass through the extraction machine again. Then the ballot must be smoothed, and then put through a counting machine.
The key term is ‘election week’. There’s no longer going to be an election day here
Many representatives from each party will be allowed inside the convention center to observe the process, but arrangements for media to be inside have been shelved. Any ballot whose validity is contested – perhaps because the voter neglected to use the inner envelope, rendering a so-called “naked” ballot – must be reviewed by commissioners in a process that has not been publicly described.
“There are challenge guidelines that are outlined in the state election code, and we will follow those guidelines,” Deeley said.
Some election observers fear that the presence inside the hall of Trump supporters could create an opportunity for havoc – especially with concerns about coronavirus – that could interrupt the operation in a way that could allow Trump to amplify his claims of fraud in Philadelphia.
Deeley said election officials were prepared for attempts to tamper in the election.
“There’s security at the convention center,” she said, and pointed to statements by Philadelphia’s district attorney, Larry Krasner, that the city was ready to prosecute election-related wrongdoing.
“He announced he’s ready to go, and that’s not going to be allowed on Philadelphia election day.”
In each election, voters entrust their neighbors who volunteer as poll workers to tally election results, and that trust is as well-placed this year as in years past, no matter what Trump says, Ridge said.
“For him to suggest that these local officials would engage in willful, intentional, massive fraud, in order to discredit or delegitimize the process, is unfathomable and unpresidential,” Ridge said.
“We’ve hopefully begun to inoculate and educate Americans around the necessity of patience so that every vote can be counted.”