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The Count is a daily newsletter and live show from The Appeal and NowThis, focused on what happens in the scenario that the 2020 presidential race is too close to call on election night, if President Donald Trump makes good on his promise to not accept the election results, and what we can do in the 77 days between election day and the inauguration to uphold our democracy.

Today, we’ll look at:

  • New polling that shows voters aren’t believing President Donald Trump’s spin about election day results.
  • Why experts are worried 2020 might be a throwback to the election of 1876.
  • How complex rules and processes are a hidden form of voter suppression.

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  • 13 days until election day.
  • 48 days until the deadline for all ballots to be counted.
  • 54 days until electoral college slates send their votes to Congress.
  • 77 days until Congress counts electoral college votes.
  • 91 days until inauguration day.


This year, counting the votes is going to take a loooong time. At least 83 million mail-in ballots have been requested or sent to voters across the United States, and nearly one-third have already been returned. This is a historic number. Before mail-in ballots can even be counted they must be opened, signature verified, and physically prepared for processing. The vast majority of states cannot begin counting until election day.

But Trump is trying to spin this situation into a false crisis in order to undermine trust in the electoral system:

  • “Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months, or even years later!” — Trump tweeted on July 30
  • “What we want election night to look like is a system that’s fair, a situation where we know who the President of the United States is on election night. That’s how the system is supposed to work.” — White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Fox News, Sep. 9

New polling from Data for Progress and The Justice Collaborative Institute shows most voters don’t believe Trump’s spin:

  • Once given information about mail-in voting, 66% of all voters, including 63% of Republicans, say this makes them less likely to believe we’ll have results on election day.
  • 68% of voters, including 56% of Republicans, also expect a legitimate change between the finalized vote count and that on election night.
  • KEY TAKEAWAY: GOOD NEWS FOR DEMOCRACY. If Trump tries to prematurely declare victory on election night or claim that mail-in ballot counts are fraudulent, he can only be successful if Americans, and Republican voters in particular, believe him. This polling indicates bipartisan skepticism about these claims and that voters are becoming more comfortable with the idea of waiting days or weeks for final election results.


The Electoral College has decided the Presidency in all but three elections — 1800, 1824, and 1876. In each of these cases, the House of Representatives chose the president, which has electoral analysts this year craning their necks back to the 19th century.

Every presidential election, congress counts the votes in the Electoral College. Usually this is a trivial matter. But congress’ role becomes decisive in picking the president in two scenarios:

  1. Neither candidate gets to the 270 Electoral vote threshold to win including a 269-269 tie. (This year, there are 64 different scenarios in which a tie could occur.) This happened in 1800 and 1824.
  2. There is an unclear number of Electoral College votes because of disagreements in state totals and competing elector slates. This occurred in 1876.

Dial in 1-8-7-6 into your Delorean time machine, get up to 88 mph, and you’d see:

  • DISAGREEMENTS — Despite record voter turnout of 82%, multiple states had disputed returns after claims of voter fraud.
  • NO ELECTOR MAJORITY — 185 Electoral College votes were needed at the time to become president. Without the electors from these disputed states, Democrat Samuel Tilden had 184 votes and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes had 165 votes.
  • RIVAL SLATES — A few states sent lists of competing slates of electors to Congress.
  • COMMISSION — Congress created a 15-member commission of congressmen and Supreme Court judges. Partisanship was split with a 15th member “known for his impartiality” but after he resigned, he was replaced with a Republican judge.
  • REPUBLICANS WIN — The group voted along party lines 8-7 to give Hayes the remaining disputed Electoral College votes.
  • DEVASTATING COMPROMISE — To get Democrats on board, Republicans agreed to remove the last federal troops from the South, essentially abandoning Reconstruction, and opening the door for the Jim Crow era.

The lead up to the election of 1876 closely mirrors 2020, with voter suppression, claims of fraud, legal challenges, and an extremely partisan Capitol with a divided Congress and Republican-leaning Supreme Court. But the similarities don’t stop there.

Yesterday on The Count, Ben Sheehan, author of OMG WTF Does the Constitution Actually Say?, highlighted a “backsliding in democracy” including undermining the Voting Rights Act and widespread gerrymandering which have “rotted the democratic foundations in many ways in this country.”

“What I’m talking about is parallels of resistance to having our first black president,” said Sheehan. “You have the Reconstruction Era being 12 years after the end of civil war and slavery. And then you have this moment being 12 years after the election of the first African American president…and so these parallels are really unsettling.”


We’re all familiar with many of the forms of voters suppression, from gerrymandering, limiting polling places, harsh voter ID restrictions, voter roll purges, and felony disenfranchisement.

A lesser known form of voter suppression is onerous and complex voting systems. Cleverly hidden under the guise of “election security,” these systems and requirements can confuse voters, causing mistakes (or pushing people not to vote at all).

In 2016, an astonishing 1% of votes, amounting to 1.4 million ballots, weren’t counted because they arrived late, signatures didn’t match, or ballots weren’t properly marked. This issue is likely to grow this year. With hundreds of election lawsuits flying around the country, cases are difficult to track. But some of the restrictive processes that have gained attention just in the last month include:

  • PENNSYLVANIA — can continue rejecting mail-in ballots that are not submitted inside a second “secrecy” envelope, due to a state Supreme Court decision. This could cause as many as 100,000 ballots to be rejected.
  • NORTH CAROLINA — will return to requiring witness signatures on mail-in ballots, after an agreement by the state Board of Elections. Election officials, who had been waiting for a decision, will now need to reject potentially thousands of already-submitted ballots and voters will need to fill out another ballot.
  • TEXAS — can continue rejecting mail-in ballots over mismatched signatures without informing the voter until after the election, an appeals court ruled.
  • ALABAMA — will continue requiring that mail-in ballot applications contain a photo ID and that mail-in ballots be submitted alongside an affidavit that is notarized or signed by two witnesses, after a federal appeals court ruling.

It’s not just court cases over ballot requirements. Human error, a lack of preparedness, and insufficient resources may cause voter suppression and disenfranchisement this election. Nearly 100,000 New York voters were sent defective ballots, more than 28,000 North Carolina voters received incorrect ballots, nearly 7,000 New Jersey voters’ ballots had the wrong congressional district, thousands of Ohio voters are still waiting for mail-in ballots, a handful of Pennsylvania voters didn’t receive the “secrecy envelope” required to submit their mail-in ballots, and more than 2,000 California voters were sent faulty ballots with no way to vote for a presidential candidate. While these errors likely weren’t intentional, they are a direct product of an election system that is intentionally complicated and starved for resources.

— “There’s this long history of the GOP, using bureaucracy to achieve their policy goals … voter suppression is no exception. They’re very, very good at exploiting tiny, tiny, invisible bureaucratic minutia to mess people up.” — The Count co-host Emily Galvin-Almanza


  • The National Guard is preparing for “election-related missions.” Their work could include ballot counting or responding to post-election day unrest if called upon by a governor.
  • A conservative think tank’s database of 1,298 instances of “voter fraud” is often used as evidence by Republicans, but an analysis found it “does not include a single example of a concerted effort to use absentee ballot fraud to steal a major election, much less a presidential election.”
  • 17 attorneys general have filed a Supreme Court brief opposing Alabama’s attempt to maintain a ban on curbside voting.
  • The “overwhelming majority” of Pennsylvania’s votes will be counted by the Friday after election day, according to the secretary of state. But lawmakers have essentially closed the door on allowing early processing of ballots which would make this goal far more likely.
  • Dozens of Californian ballots were damaged after a ballot box was set on fireThe incident is being investigated as suspected arson.
  • Colorado will tackle voting misinformation head on, with the secretary of state announcing that her office will run ads on social media and Google to counteract misinformation that begins trending.
  • Wisconsin, a key swing state, opened early voting yesterday. Some towns have already passed 50% of their 2016 turnout.

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