Five Experts on the Possibility of an Election Month Instead of an Election Day, and What Both Parties Should Do

A move toward early voting and mail-in ballots has been evident over the past two decades, but with this year's presidential election occurring during a pandemic, the trend will be magnified on a scale never seen before.

As both parties prepare for an extended election count that may span weeks, Newsweek spoke to five experts on what campaigns should be focusing on ahead of November 3.

Mike Spahn, managing director at Precision Strategies

For Spahn, the most effective strategy comes down to one word: communication. The strategist, who recently served as chief of staff for Senator Patty Murray of Washington state and worked on Tammy Duckworth's 2006 congressional run in Illinois, said communication to both voters and the national media will be key in this election.

"It's going to be important in the lead-up to the election, and then after the election, that campaigns are communicating out to their supporters and the national press what the expectation is," Spahn said. "They need to be regimented about that communication because, unfortunately, perception frequently becomes reality and you can't trust institutions to do the communication for you. You need to be part of that communication infrastructure."

He added, "It used to be the case that an individual news anchor, for instance, held sway and could be the independent umpire calling balls and strikes, but the fragmented media infrastructure today means that's less likely to be the case. As a result, the communication coming out from the individual campaign is going to be a really essential piece of the puzzle."

Spahn pointed to the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election as a key example of how communication management can be imperative for a campaign.

"A lot of people point back to Joe Lieberman's interview shortly after the election as really swinging the conversation around counting the votes," he said. Lieberman was Al Gore's running mate in the 2000 race.

Communication to voters after their ballots are cast won't be enough, according to Spahn. He suggested that campaigns reach out to individual voters ahead of Election Day about the best way to vote—whether it's in person or by mail—and encourage them to do so as early as possible to ensure their votes are counted.

He argued that the government, on both a federal and state level, has not done enough or been empowered to do enough to combat the lawsuits that often come out of Election Day.

Having worked on a number of ballot-chasing efforts, Spahn said the tradition and infrastructure of election counts that go overtime have long been in place but will need to be amplified and prioritized this time around. In particular, he stressed that this includes a legal infrastructure that will allow campaigns to fight out any irregularities that might happen at the local or state level.

"As a result, the legal side of this is going to be consuming data all the way through closing of polls on the 3rd. And on the back end of the election, just to jump ahead," he advised.

He said the first step for these legal teams is to plan with the expectation that the count is going to go on for a while. "That means be prepared with voter protection work that has been a consistent part of campaigns for a very long time."

mail in ballot
A woman holds up a mail-in ballot before dropping it off at Boston City Hall during Massachusetts primary on September 1. Joseph Prezioso/AFP

Matt Terrill, partner at Firehouse Strategies

Terrill also thinks lawyering up will be important for campaigns when preparing for a delay in the election's results. He said it's something both parties have already begun doing.

"You're seeing it happen. You're sending out election lawyers who work on behalf of your campaign," he said. "The appropriate staff who work on behalf of your campaign for your political party should really be going out there and being prepared in these states ahead of time—to be physically on deck, to be prepared for any scenario. That could be a razor-thin close election in a battleground state like Florida, similar to what we saw during the famous 2000 recount."

Terrill, who consulted for the Republican Party of Florida during the 2016 election, emphasized the role of key battleground states, including the one he is most familiar with. He said that encouraging mail-in voting among particular voting blocs could be an instrumental strategy during the pandemic.

"One voting demographic, particularly for Republicans and President Trump in a key battleground state like Florida, is seniors," he explained. "Seniors, based on the data and information that we have on hand, tend to be more impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, they essentially have a fear of going in public to the polling place and are going to vote by mail or want to vote absentee."

He added, "For the president to go out and rally against voting by mail, it's certainly, in my view, doing damage to his ability to win this election. By changing his rhetoric and embracing voting by mail, it's going to set him up for more success in terms of winning in key battleground states like Florida and across the nation."

Abroad voting
A father holding his baby posts his ballot for the 2020 presidential election into a special box provided by the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok on September 24. Mladen Antonov/AFP

Matthew Rey, partner at Red Horse Strategies

Following the 2016 presidential race, social media giants have become key figures in the discussions about elections. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have increasingly implemented new protocols amid concerns about election misinformation.

"You've seen some of the social media giants grapple with how they're going to be doing that in terms of banning ads after the election," Rey said. "Facebook's been talking about banning ads on declaring a victory before the election as well, but this needs to extend beyond just advertising."

Rey, who helped Democrats win a majority in New York state's Senate, said there needs to be more conversation to support the impartial election administrators across the country.

"One of the things that is forgotten in this discussion about election administration that is very important is that a lot of these local jurisdictions, in fact almost all of them, are bipartisan election administrators," he said.

Campaigns, in coordination with the media, should bolster the idea that counting timelines are part of how elections are administered, he said. By reassuring voters that counting ballots takes time and setting these expectations ahead of time, campaigns can help combat disinformation, he added.

Poll Workers
Poll workers at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department deposit mail-in ballots into an official ballot drop box on primary election day, August 18, in Doral, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty

Jay Townsend, Republican political consultant

Townsend said campaigns need to start targeting voters based on their state's mail-in-voting deadlines. Because various states are sending out absentee ballots at different times, he said, it's important to catch these voters before they cast their ballots.

"They've got to keep track of when ballots go out and when people start making their decisions and their choice," he said. "In a place like New Jersey, where they're now disseminating ballots, you have to be on Facebook or on television—somewhere to make sure they have the information that defines this choice, because you can't wait until after they've voted."

Townsend, who has worked on four presidential campaigns and a score of Senate, gubernatorial and congressional races, said this is a dramatic change for campaigns that are used to dedicating their energies to one particular day.

"You timed everything to one date. That's the difference. Now you're tying it all over the place," he said.

He compared the influx of early voting to weather reports, where if a city is expecting a big snowstorm, it can plan for road closures and other mitigation strategies in advance.

"But it's a little different when you're getting many different weather reports about when ballots are going to go out, who's voted when, who hasn't voted, who has a ballot in their house that they haven't cast. You're dealing with many sources of information now. It's very difficult to track," Townsend said.

Tim Hagle, associate professor at the University of Iowa

While election officials are typically used to counting ballots in a timely manner, the large number of mail-in ballots in this election cycle will require patience, according to Hagle.

"We're becoming very impatient people these days, and we're kind of used to the fact that we get a winner declared on election night. That is just not going to happen if you have hundreds of thousands, it not millions, of ballots that have to be counted," he said.

Hagle, who specializes in American politics and judicial politics and behavior, said that even if officials start counting ballots early or host satellite voting stations, everyone makes mistakes.

"People make mistakes, and people always make mistakes. That's nothing new. It's just that when all of a sudden you put a microscope over this stuff that you start to see these things, and it comes to a point where it actually makes a difference in a race. That's when things get really sticky," he said.

He said he understands that while the counting may well go past midnight on November 3, the rhetoric about continuing to seek out ballots may raise concerns among voters. He pointed to Democrat Hillary Clinton's message about not conceding on election night.

"Keep counting, keep counting," Hagle said. "Which kind of has presented some of the concerns that the right has had. The fear is that they'll just keep discovering new ballots until they get ahead."

However, he said voters need to remain patient so that officials have the time and space to accurately name a winner in the 2020 race. He argued that putting pressure on election workers will only accelerate the confusion and stress. At the end of the day, he said, it will come down to the press to mitigate concerns among anxious voters.

"It's really going to be the media that will drive that, because they're going to be the ones by and large that are calling states for either Biden or for Trump," he said.

One thing campaigns should be preparing for are counting deadlines. Hagle said if there are close calls in particular states, recounts and questions surrounding mail-in ballots may prevent Electoral College electors from meeting this year's December 14 deadline.

"The states have had to declare winners by that time so that they have selected electors for the Electoral College," he said. "That was the case in Florida. They had come right up against that deadline, and that's why the U.S. Supreme Court basically said you have to stop counting and make a decision here."

Election worker
On August 3, an election worker in Renton, Washington, opens envelopes containing vote-by-mail ballots for the August 4 state primary. Jason Redmond/AFP
Five Experts on the Possibility of an Election Month Instead of an Election Day, and What Both Parties Should Do | U.S.