What’s Still Left to Count, and Why Hasn’t a Winner Been Called?


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ImageA supporter of Joe Biden outside Philadelphia Convention Center on Friday.
Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Joe Biden keeps inching closer to victory. He now leads in states worth over 300 electoral votes. Outside of Arizona, virtually all of the remaining vote appears likely to increase his margins. So why hasn’t the race for president been called?

Mr. Biden has built a lead of just over four-tenths of a percentage point, or around 28,000 votes, as mail absentee ballots trickle in from across the state.

His lead will almost certainly continue to expand. The secretary of state’s website reports 89,282 absentee ballots remaining, and he has won the absentee vote by more than a three-to-one margin. At that pace, when those votes are counted, his lead would expand to around 75,000 votes, or to around one percentage point.

There is no source of clearly favorable remaining vote for President Trump. The handful of remaining Election Day precincts are in Philadelphia, where Mr. Biden will undoubtedly pad his lead.

Then there are around 100,000 ballots marked as provisional, from people who couldn’t initially be verified as eligible when they showed up to vote. These votes usually break overwhelmingly Democratic, though this assumption is at least somewhat complicated by the heavily Republican Election Day vote this year. But not all of the provisional ballots will be counted. And even if they were all counted, no one could argue that Mr. Trump would be poised to win them by the 70-to-30 margin needed to overcome his current deficit — let alone the deficit he’ll face after more mail votes are counted.

So if Mr. Biden has a significant and growing lead, why isn’t there a call? The answer could vary from decision desk to decision desk, but here are a few possible reasons.

The recount threshold. The networks might be waiting for Mr. Biden to clear the margin of a recount: a half-percentage point, or around 35,000 votes in Pennsylvania. Right now, Mr. Biden leads by 0.43 of a point.

The Associated Press, for instance, has stated that it will not call a race if the margin is within a range of a mandatory recount, or if it could fall into that range when all of the votes are counted.

If the decision desks are waiting for Mr. Biden to clear the 0.5-point threshold, Mr. Biden could be declared the president-elect at just about any time today.

Waiting for absentees. As mentioned earlier, Mr. Biden is poised to expand his lead as more absentee votes are counted. But absentee votes aren’t exactly the same as other votes: They can be rejected.

If you’re a skeptic on a decision desk trying to imagine whether there’s a one in-a-thousand chance of a Trump victory, you might wonder if there’s any prospect that the remaining absentee votes remain to be counted because they can’t be counted, not because officials haven’t gotten to them yet. If that’s true, maybe someone could conjure up a tiny outside chance that irregularities or provisional ballots or a recount could help Mr. Trump claw back.

On the other hand, Mr. Biden has some upside among the absentee ballots beyond what’s reported by the secretary of state: late mail ballots received after the election. These ballots face a possible legal challenge: The state Supreme Court extended the deadline for the state to receive mail ballots to three days after the election (Friday), but the U.S. Supreme Court could still reverse the decision and invalidate ballots that arrived after Election Day.

As a result, these later-arriving ballots have been segregated, and then processed and counted separately. For the moment, they do not appear to be added to the current vote counts or estimates of remaining absentee votes — but it’s a little murky.

That said, this is not a serious risk to Mr. Biden. Allegheny County received just under 1,000 ballots after the election, according to David Kaplan, a reporter for WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh. If that held statewide, the rejection of these ballots would in no way threaten Mr. Biden’s lead.

Provisional ballots. It’s also possible that the networks won’t call the race even after Mr. Biden’s lead advances to a half-point and beyond. If so, there’s only one plausible reason: provisional ballots. At this point, the networks might not feel that they can definitively rule out the possibility of Mr. Trump’s winning them by a wide enough margin to prevail.

Provisional ballots are usually overwhelmingly Democratic, but there is reason to wonder whether that will be so true this year. Unlike in prior elections, the Election Day vote skewed Republican. As a result, the provisional ballots could be more Republican as well.

There are only a handful of provisional ballots counted in Pennsylvania so far, mainly in Republican, rural areas. But these ballots do support the possibility that Mr. Trump could fare better than usual in the provisional vote. So far, he has won the provisional vote in these counties by a margin of 75 percent to 24 percent, versus a 70-29 lead in the non-provisional vote — or about a net 10-point improvement among these ballots.

If this 10-point improvement were to hold statewide, perhaps Mr. Trump could hope to win these ballots by 10 points or so. This would still leave him far short of victory. But the decent numbers for Mr. Trump in heavily Republican areas could leave the decision desks wanting to confirm that Mr. Trump won’t outperform by even more elsewhere in the state. After all, there’s more room to outperform in areas where he did worse.

That said, there are early indications that Mr. Trump will not fare so well elsewhere in the state. The Allegheny County executive said the early provisional ballots, of which there are 17,000, have been trending toward Mr. Biden by a 50-point margin.

Another reason it’s at least a little complicated to analyze the provisional ballots: We don’t have great data on their number or geographic distribution. The state has said there are at least 100,000, but the reporting is somewhat murky. There is not a county-by-county account of the provisional ballots, and it is not clear that the 100,000 includes the estimated number of provisionals from every county.

That said, the reporting we do have indicates that these provisional ballots are disproportionately in Democratic counties. Philadelphia said that “most” of its remaining 40,000 votes were provisional or overseas and military ballots.

Even if we conservatively estimate that there are only 20,000 provisional ballots in Philadelphia, that would still represent twice its share of the statewide vote if there are 100,000 statewide. That would make sense, as the city usually represents a disproportionate share of the provisional vote in the state. In 2016, Hillary Clinton added more than 20,000 votes to her tally in Philadelphia in the weeks after the election. Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County says there were 17,000 provisional ballots, which would again be well above the state average.

Similarly, the data from the Trump counties that do appear to have counted provisional ballots suggests most of the provisional vote will be in Democratic areas. The provisional ballots counted in Republican areas so far represent 0.7 percent of the total votes cast. If there are at least 100,000 provisionals, they’ll represent 1.5 percent of the total vote. The lower share in Republican areas so far suggests that there will be a higher share in Democratic areas, to make up for it.

There’s another reason to think a lot of the remaining vote is in Philadelphia: The turnout in the city has been quite a bit lower than expected, with 690,000 votes compared with 709,000 votes from 2016, while the rest of the state’s turnout has increased markedly. Part of the issue might be the 17 remaining Election Day precincts and mail ballots. But the provisional ballots would explain a lot, especially since the city usually has a lot of them.

If the provisional ballots are really the problem holding the networks back, it’s not clear how soon we’ll get a projection. Every provisional ballot has to be individually verified, so it can take a while. And it’s also not clear whether counties will report partial provisional results, or wait until they’re all counted. If they report partial provisional results, we could know very quickly whether they’re the big trove of votes that the president needs. If they don’t, again, it could take a while.

There are some valid uncertainties about exactly where the provisional ballots will end up. But it is all but impossible to construe the data to show that Mr. Trump has any serious hope to make up his current 28,000-vote deficit with provisional ballots, let alone the larger deficit he will face once additional absentee votes are counted.

Mr. Biden has built a lead of nearly two percentage points — well outside the margin of a recount. So what’s going on here?

According to Nevada election officials, most of the remaining vote is in Clark County, and it falls into a few buckets: 58,000 mail-in ballots, 66,500 same-day voter registrants, and a scattering of provisionals and “cured” ballots, where voters can remedy an absentee ballot that was rejected because of a bad signature match.

Mr. Biden will almost surely expand his lead from here. The mail-in votes have broken by a two-to-one margin for Mr. Biden in Nevada; if that keeps up, he’ll roughly double his lead to around 40,000 votes. To overcome it, Mr. Trump would need to win same-day registrants by about an 80-20 margin.

We do not have exact data on the vote choice of the same-day registrants, but the Nevada secretary of state released data showing that same-day registrants were almost exactly even in party registration, 36 percent Democratic to 35 percent Republican. That’s about the same proportion as the state as a whole. It’s not credible to argue they’ll back Mr. Trump by anything like the 80-20 margin he currently needs. At the moment, it’s not likely they’ll back him by a meaningful margin at all.

The number of provisional ballots appear to be quite small. According to the secretary of state on Thursday, there are only 2,500 provisional ballots, and Nevada election officials on Friday said few provisional ballots tend to get counted.

In addition, there are also some mail ballots that can still be “cured” because of a bad signature match, and some mail ballots that can arrive until Nov. 10. Both groups of ballots would be expected to back Mr. Biden.

As far as I know, there is no reason Mr. Biden could not be called the projected winner in Nevada.

We’ll see whether the race callers pull the trigger after seeing more votes from Nevada at noon Eastern today.

Mr. Trump keeps closing. He won the ballots counted Friday by 11 percentage points, putting him within one percentage point of Mr. Biden with about 170,000 more votes left to count.

Fox News and The Associated Press called the state for Mr. Biden on election night, but the other networks have not done so. The New York Times, which usually takes A.P. projections, did not accept the A.P. call.

The good news for Mr. Biden: He’s doing well enough to hang on. Mr. Trump would need to win the remaining vote by about 17 points to prevail, and he just hasn’t been getting that number in the ballots reported over the last day or so.

The bad news for the prospect of a projection by the other news organizations: Mr. Trump is gaining, and if the votes break as they have been over the last day or so, he’ll close to within 20,000 votes, or cut the lead to about half a point statewide.

There’s not much reason to think that Friday’s vote was wholly unrepresentative of the vote still to come. The vote that was counted Friday was a mix of Election Day drop-off mail ballots and provisionals. Over time, provisionals should represent a greater share of the remaining vote, though it’s unclear whom that will help.

With Mr. Biden’s lead shrinking, the rest of the news organizations probably aren’t going to call Arizona until Mr. Trump has to do impossibly well — win by 50 points, to make up a number — in the remaining vote. The burden on him is high, but it’s hard to come up with a fact-based reason that it’s absolutely impossible.

We’ll get more vote from Maricopa County at 11 a.m. Eastern today, and we’ll see whether that’s enough to nudge things toward a clearer outcome.

Mr. Biden increased his lead in the state to more than 7,000 votes Friday night, with a batch of new votes in heavily Democratic Fulton County.

There isn’t much left to count. There may be a handful of absentee ballots left across the state, which could plausibly pad Mr. Biden’s lead further. Then there are the extraneous votes: provisionals, overseas and military ballots, and perhaps “cured” absentee ballots.

There’s more reason to think Mr. Biden gains from here than Mr. Trump. So far, provisional ballots in Georgia have gone for Mr. Biden by a margin of 55 percent to 43 percent, compared with a lead of 52-47 for Mr. Trump among non-provisional votes in the same precincts. The straggling absentee votes, if any remain, will probably help Mr. Biden.

The overseas and military votes are not the trove of Trump votes that some seem to assume. Most of the overseas and military ballots have already been counted: The only outstanding ones are those that might have arrived after the election, and it’s not going to be a big chunk of votes. Only about 9,000 overseas and military absentee ballots had been requested but not returned as of Election Day. And Mr. Biden might fare just fine among overseas and military ballots, as the cosmopolitan globe-trotter vote might well cancel out any presumed edge for the president among military personnel.

There is no path for Mr. Trump to overtake Mr. Biden in the votes that are uncounted in Georgia. Nonetheless, don’t expect a call on this one. Mr. Biden isn’t likely to clear the recount threshold, and the networks may not call it until a recount is completed. The president would need some sort of a surprise, like a tabulation error, to get back in the hunt.

Continue reading at New York Times