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Comment: Better hope the election's not close - Michael McDonald

USA TODAY USA TODAY 2/11/2016 Michael P. McDonald

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The revival of Hillary Clinton’s email woes and a trend toward tightening polls are giving Donald Trump new hope of winning the White House. Could this election go into overtime?

If the race is exceptionally close, we can’t rule out an overtime period that, in this environment, could rip the country apart.

It is absolutely fair for any candidate to exercise his rights to ask for a recount if the election is particularly close. We should have all confidence that the election results are accurate. When the Supreme Court halted the Florida recount he had requested in 2000, Al Gore graciously accepted the results. “For the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession,” he said.

However, Gore’s conciliatory tone is not Trump’s rhetoric of “rigged” elections, which he regularly uses to whip up his supporters. He talks of people casting fraudulent votes and stationing observers to “watch” the election. Trump questions the process itself, describing how election officials count ballots: “Oh here’s a ballot. Here’s another ballot, throw it away. Oh, here’s one I like. We’ll keep that one.”

This is where a real nightmare for America’s democracy could unfold. What if the initial tally on election night favors Trump but as more votes are counted in the following days, the results shift in Clinton’s favor? It does not take too much imagination to predict Trump would be outraged, with an emphasis on rage.

A Democratic shift from election night to the final tally of votes is predictable. All states count some ballots late, and those tend to break towards Democrats. Nothing nefarious occurs: the casting and counting follow procedures laid out in state law. Some of the states that count more late ballots are key battlegrounds, magnifying the suspense on Election Night. Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. © Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Mail ballots are one of two types that can shift election results. Many states require mail ballots to be received by election officials on Election Day. Others continue to accept ballots postmarked on Election Day, up to two weeks following the election. Among these states are Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

These late ballots may break towards the Democrats. My analysis shows more Democrats than Republicans in Iowa and North Carolina have yet to return their mail ballots. Why? These voters tend to be younger people who tend to return their ballots later. If Trump is slightly ahead in a late mail-ballot return state, he could fall behind after all the mail ballots are counted.

Then there are provisional ballots. States are required under federal law to provide them to anyone with a problem at the polls — a voter who doesn’t have the required form of ID, for instance, or whose name is missing from the voter registration rolls. Election officials review provisional ballots and allow voters to clarify their eligibility after Election Day. In the four states that report separate results for provisional ballots, the voters who cast them broke strongly for the Democrats. So if the presidential race is particularly close, provisional ballots could tilt it.

But there is more. Ohio, which can determine the presidency, uses provisional ballots for people who change their address on Election Day. In 2012, over 200,000 provisional ballots were cast in Ohio, many for this reason. Although Ohio does not report separate results for provisional ballots, we might suspect these voters lean Democratic since they move more often, and younger people are part of the Democratic coalition.

If the election comes down to Ohio and election night tallies show a slight Trump lead, the media will likely not call the state until the late mail and provisional ballots are tabulated. An early voter in Miami on Oct. 31, 2016. © Joe Raedle, Getty Images An early voter in Miami on Oct. 31, 2016.

Now imagine Trump has a slight initial lead in Ohio, and this state puts him over the 270 electoral votes he needs to win. Trump might declare himself the president-elect and attack the dishonest media for failing to anoint him. As election results shift in Clinton’s direction, as would be expected given the character of the ballots counted late, he would rail at Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted — who has endorsed Trump — as fixing the election for Clinton. If Clinton eventually emerged the winner, then all hell would break loose.

The unofficial prayer of election officials is “please let it be a landslide, or at least a decisive margin.” When 140 million people do anything, including voting, it is only human nature that some things go wrong. These blemishes are magnified out of proportion when an election is close. In 2000 the boogeyman was the hanging chad. In 2016 the gremlin could be provisional ballots. For all our sakes, and for the legitimacy of American democracy, let’s hope that this is merely a cautionary tale.

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