From Smirking Chimp
One of President Trump's most loyal propagandists is predicting that Trump will claim victory on election night as soon as he is ahead among Election Day voters. But that scenario is based on a misconception of how all ballots are counted and the early returns are compiled, according to election and legal experts.
"At 10 o'clock or 11 o'clock" on November 3, Donald J. Trump is going to walk into the Oval Office, and he may hit a tweet before he goes in there" and he's going to sit there, having won Ohio, and being up in Pennsylvania and Florida, and he's going to say, 'Hey, game's over,'" said Stephen K. Bannon, Trump's 2016 campaign CEO and former White House adviser, during a defiant speech on October 10 forum hosted by the Young Republican Federation of Virginia.
"The elites are traumatized. They do not want to go stand in line and vote. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a game-changer," Bannon said. "It [the decisive factor] is what electorate shows up to vote on a vote that can be certified. That's a vote that counts. And right now, what they [Trump critics] don't want to talk about, is Donald J. Trump leads on people who are actually going to show up and vote on November 3, by 21 percent."
Bannon's prediction that Trump would defy norms by asserting that he won before indisputable victory margins were reported was not just another sign that Trump would not heed the rules governing 2020's election. Bannon's fiery speech was a glimpse into a propagandist's mindset that drew on smears and distortions to fan partisan ill will. But his prediction of how Trump could claim an early victory was based on a flawed premise, because no early returns on election night were only going to contain the in-person votes cast on Election Day.
"The first reports are the county totals," said Chris Sautter, an attorney who has specialized in post-election challenges and recounts for decades. "You don't get the breakdowns [of votes cast in different categories such as early voting, mail-in votes, Election Day votes, and overseas votes] until after election night. It depends on the state."
Other election administration experts confirmed that the election night returns would be a mix of all of the earliest votes cast -- from early in-person voting sites, from absentee ballots that had been returned and processed, and from in-person voting on Election Day. (As of October 15, more than 16 million absentee ballots had been returned or cast in early voting, the U.S. Elections Project said.)
"There's literally not a single credible journalist or analyst who would look at early returns in a close race with many ballots left to count and declare victory," said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. "If counting of all ballots magically ended at midnight on election night, we would have had a President Gore, and Donald Trump wouldn't have won the presidency."
"Most importantly, to do so would be to disenfranchise the millions of men and women in the military whose votes often don't arrive until after Election Day," Becker continued. "That said, many early in-person ballots and early-received mail ballots will be processed on election night, especially in states that allow early pre-processing of those ballots, such as Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Ohio. So, many votes may be reported out that night."
Sautter and Becker, a former U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Voting Section attorney, operate in a world where facts, laws and election procedure dictate who wins elections -- including post-election jury-like proceedings to ascertain voter intent on contested ballots. But the world of legal opinion is not the same as the sphere of public opinion, which is where Trump and Bannon shape narratives based on feelings, grievances and disinformation.
"Trump's strategy is to create chaos, uncertainty," Sautter said. "What Bannon is saying is if Trump is ahead on election night, I'm sure he will declare victory. Trump [also] may take some kind of legal action to try to stop the counting. I can't imagine that would be successful. It would be like Florida in 2018. They [Republicans] filed a suit there and it got thrown out."
"Distinguishing between these two things [electoral facts and fantasies] is really important," said Justin Levitt, who oversaw the DOJ's voting rights enforcement in the Obama administration. "I think there will be lots of the latter. I think there will be suits filed. I think there will be people screaming. I think there will be lots of tweets. What I have been saying of late is reminding people that a lawsuit without provable facts is just a tweet with a filing fee."
But back in rural Virginia, Bannon spun out a narrative to a rapt audience that was filled with innuendo, grievances, premonitions and assumptions that the vote would be stolen.
"I don't like loose talk about civil war, but I got to tell you," Bannon continued, "when you hear what the Democrats are saying, what their rhetoric is. Remember, Hillary Clinton, their last presidential candidate, what did she say? Under no circumstances -- no circumstances -- is Joe Biden to concede... They're going to keep counting until they get 270 Electoral [College] votes for Joe Biden, right? They are going to be voting by the pound and voting by the pallet."
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