Opinion | Vote Counts Change. Please Don’t Panic.

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This demand has recently returned to the president’s Twitter feed. “Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months, or even years later!” he tweeted last month.

In effect, Mr. Trump, clearly worried about the blue shift, has invented a new standard: The only valid vote total is the first one. Anything that subsequently alters it is suspicious, if not outright fraud. Count the days until this charge takes on a racialized tone, with insinuations of chaos and subterfuge at “urban” voting precincts, mysterious boxes of ballots suddenly discovered in inner-city warehouses and so on.

In fact, Mr. Foley explains, the blue shift is the result of a combination of innocuous factors, including the well-intentioned reforms in the wake of the 2000 election debacle that made it easier for voters to register and to cast a provisional ballot in case of any issues with their registration. Democrats have benefited more from those reforms, he says, because voter-registration problems tend to be more common among people who lean Democratic, like college students, and urban and lower-income voters.

In their paper, Mr. Foley and Mr. Stewart found that the bluer the state, the greater the shift. On the surface, that might suggest that there’s nothing to worry about: If the blue shift is most pronounced where Democrats are already likely to win, then it won’t affect the outcome. But Mr. Foley says the risk of a swing-state blue shift is greater this year. He’s focused on Pennsylvania, which Mr. Trump narrowly won by 44,000 votes in 2016, but where the Democratic candidate netted more than 20,000 votes between the initial reported total on election night and the final certified count in each of the past four presidential elections.

“It’s not huge,” he said, “but if your statewide margin is 10,000, a 20,000-vote blue shift could flip it.” Three factors could make the shift in Pennsylvania even larger this year: the pandemic, which could drive more voters to vote absentee; a move by the state to allow voters to cast an absentee ballot without an excuse; and Mr. Trump’s hostility toward voting by mail, which, supported by Attorney General William Barr, may drive Republicans to vote in person at much higher rates than Democrats.

It must be repeated: Voting fraud of any kind is rare to nonexistent. If anything, later-counted votes are examined more closely than votes cast in person. One simple way to counter disingenuous charges of fraud would be to do what a federal judge in Wisconsin ordered in April — embargo election night returns until all absentee ballots are counted. There, at least, this strategy worked. Six days passed before results were announced, no one claimed fraud, and the world kept turning.

The media have a special responsibility in this environment, Mr. Foley argues. The cultural expectation that voting results are instant, and final, on election night is a relatively recent development. Especially in a time of pandemic, major media outlets will do Americans a great service by practicing patience.

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