How the ‘Red Mirage’ Turned Out to Be True

Trump and Biden supporters gathered at the ballot counting center as Biden supporters early celebrate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 6, 2020. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

By Elle Meyers

November 6, 2020

Biden’s late lead in Georgia and Pennsylvania is totally normal, especially with record-breaking mail-in ballots.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden took the lead in Georgia and gained significant ground in Pennsylvania overnight as states continue to count absentee ballots. 

The shift tips the scales more heavily in favor of Biden as he pulls further ahead of incumbent President Donald Trump. 

Although there are still thousands of votes to count in at least four states it’s clear the United States has experienced what’s been called a “red mirage” and “blue shift.” 

The phenomenon happens when initially more votes are counted for one candidate and early results show them winning by a landslide. But as more ballots are tabulated, the results shift and favor the other candidate. In this current election, some states had Trump ahead on Election Day, including Georgia and Pennsylvania. But as counting continued, especially with mail-in ballots, the tallies shifted in Biden’s favor. 

“This is not the first time this has happened,” Professor Larry Garber told COURIER. Garber is a professor at University of Arizona Law School and serves on the National Task Force on Election Crises. “This phenomenon was noted in earlier elections including in 2018, this year is just much more dramatic obviously.” 

Millions of people turned to absentee and mail-in voting to participate in the 2020 election. For months, experts encouraged voters to request an absentee ballot and submit it through the mail or at a drop box to avoid crowded polling locations and slow the spread of COVID-19. More than 100 million votes were cast before Election Day this year, shattering the 2016 record of 47 million early votes. A total of 92.1 million absentee ballots were requested for this year’s election.

Data shows that in this election, far more Democrats have voted by mail than Republicans. But vote-by-mail systems don’t favor one political party over another. Instead, Garber noted, it was no accident that more Democrats voted via absentee ballot.

“I do think it was the result of conscious campaigning by both sides,” he said. “The Republicans clearly were emphasizing in-person voting from the outset, particularly President Trump. The Democrats, from early on, were urging people to apply for mail in ballots.” 

Those mail-in or absentee ballots typically take longer to count because there are extra steps like transporting the ballots to the correct counting location and removing the ballot from its envelopes. Some states will count in-person votes first and then turn their attention to mail-in votes. 

This means all the votes are still counted, just at different times. And that can create the illusion that one candidate is far ahead of another. 

“Pennsylvania is probably the most classic case of this,” Garber said. “This is because [officials] aren’t allowed to count the absentee ballots until Election Day, so the first ballots that came in were all in-person votes which went more heavily for Trump.” 

Republicans in Pennsylvania’s state legislature refused to let counties in the state start counting mail-in ballots early, even though that is customary in many other states. So in the days following the election, Pennsylvania began counting its absentee ballots. Then, Garber said, the margins got “smaller and smaller until this morning, when Biden actually took the lead.” 

Garber also noted that it’s normal for the United States to have to wait a few days for official election results, and Election Day actually went very smoothly. 

“There were a lot of concerns expressed that there’d be various provocations, intimidation potentially violence on Election Day and there were no reports of that. There were also concerns that the counting process would be marred by various challenges to counting specific ballots and just slowing up the process and that didn’t happen either,” he said. 

There have been some erroneous claims that this election was unfair in some way or “stolen” but, Garber says that’s just not the case. 

“There are leaders out there doing their best to make sure [it is fair] and I think what we need now, once the results are all finalized, is for responsible officials to say ‘okay the people have spoken and now you need to move on,’ and an orderly transition needs to be initiated,” Garber said.


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