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Triangulating Electoral College Math

still from the first televised presidential debate of 2020.
photo by Elvert Barnes, licensed under CC BY-SA

As the vote-counting continues, we will probably hear that the identity of our next president all comes down to what happens in Pennsylvania. That is almost true, but not quite.

This week’s election created a fascinating (at least to political junkies) Electoral College map. It boils down to a triangle with three critical corners: the Southwest, the Southeast and Pennsylvania in the Northeast. Analyzing how it will play out is like breaking down the pregame matchup for the Super Bowl, with somewhat higher stakes.

So, since the final score is not yet decided, let’s give it a whirl.

Begin with the current state of play. If you want to follow along, you can use the interactive map at the 270toWin website. Assign red or pink colors to Iowa, Ohio, Florida and Maine’s District 2, all of which Trump has securely won. Put Pennsylvania in beige. Use red or pink as a starting point for Georgia and North Carolina, and your preferred shade of blue for Arizona and Nevada. Verify that Alaska is in a red hue. Although it is not decided, Alaska going Democrat would mean 2020 has placed us in a parallel universe.

Leave Wisconsin and Michigan in blue. You may wonder why I don’t address those Rust Belt swing states in detail. I am leaving them out because I do not believe they matter anymore. The Trump campaign is seeking a recount in Wisconsin, where Joe Biden is the apparent winner with a lead of about 21,000 votes, but recounts almost never move the final results that much. This is because innocent errors – the kind that a recount is likely to discover – tend to happen randomly in either direction, according to a candidate’s share of the vote. Ballot disqualifications don’t happen randomly, but they seldom happen in such large numbers. Hold this thought; we’ll return to it later when we consider what the courts may do in other states. Michigan, the other “Blue Wall” northern state that President Donald Trump hoped to win as he did in 2016, appears well out of reach.

On Thursday morning, Trump was leading in the vote counts in the Southeast, trailing in the Southwest, and watching a 700,000-vote Election Night lead melt away in Pennsylvania as the state’s mail-in ballots were counted. When I wrote this, that Pennsylvania lead was down to 136,000 votes, with many reportedly still to count. Most of the change that happened on Wednesday resulted from ballots that had arrived before the polls closed. But as the week progressed, an increasing share would have come from ballots that the state Supreme Court ruled must be accepted through Friday, if they are postmarked by Tuesday or if they have no postmark. We will come back to this point later, too.

North Carolina's lawmakers extended the ballot-receipt deadline to today, but the state Board of Elections added six more days to the spill period, to Nov. 12. This, too, will probably be reviewed in the courts. Before these post-election ballot arrivals, Trump held a lead in the state of less than 80,000 votes. In Georgia, processing an absentee-ballot deluge trimmed a comfortable Trump lead on Election Night to a threadbare margin of less than 20,000 by Thursday. (Biden has since inched ahead in the Georgia count.) There will be no fight over Georgia’s deadlines, although in an extremely close call, ballot-by-ballot controversies in a recount or in court could make a difference.

If Trump loses Pennsylvania, the race is over and Biden wins. Even a Trump comeback in the Southwest would not give the president a second term. In that sense, Pennsylvania lives up to its Keystone State nickname.

But victory in Pennsylvania alone does not renew Trump’s Oval Office lease. Along with keeping Pennsylvania, he must hold on to those two Southeast states and come from behind in at least one of the Southwest states – either Nevada or Arizona – to prevail. Alternatively, losing North Carolina while holding Georgia and Pennsylvania would give Trump just enough electoral votes to win if he can also take both of the Southwest states. A Trump loss in North Carolina and either of the Southwest states gives the election to Biden, no matter what happens in Pennsylvania.

And if Trump wins Pennsylvania and North Carolina but loses in Georgia, and if he also comes from behind to win in Arizona and Nevada, we have – a tie. Each presidential candidate will have 269 Electoral College votes, assuming no “faithless elector” goes to the other side.

A tie means the race goes to the incoming House of Representatives. Each state’s House delegation will have a single vote. It is clear now that Republicans will dominate at least 26 House delegations in the next Congress. That means Trump will almost certainly be reelected if he can muster just 269 Electoral College votes. Biden needs the typical 270.

But before the race can get thrown to the House of Representatives, it may first have to go to the Supreme Court. Now we return to those extended ballot deadlines, especially Pennsylvania’s.

A “clean” win for Biden in Pennsylvania would be one where he overtakes Trump's Election Day margin solely with ballots that election officials received on or before the statutory deadline of Nov. 3. This will make all the late-arriving ballots, and everything that happens in all the other contested states, irrelevant.

However, if Biden trails with the Nov. 3 ballots and overtakes Trump with votes that were delivered after the polls closed, the Supreme Court could play a critical role in choosing the next president. Weeks before Election Day, and before Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed, the court split 4-4 on whether to block the Pennsylvania Supreme Court order that extended the deadline for receiving mailed ballots. The issue is whether, under the U.S. Constitution, a state’s courts can cite that state’s own constitution to override election rules approved by the legislature. This question may come back before the court, and its current complement of nine jurists.

A similar challenge could arise in North Carolina based on the Board of Elections’ modification of legislator-approved rules. Even if Trump loses Pennsylvania on the Election Day ballots, this question could become crucial for control of the incoming Senate. Incumbent Republican Thom Tillis held a narrow lead over Democrat challenger Cal Cunningham this week.

That is the state of play as we approach our first post-Election Day weekend in the Great Big Battle of 2020. I suppose it isn’t accurate to describe this as a pregame analysis, since we are deep into the process at this point. Most of the contest has run its course, and Biden is in a better position to win than Trump. But as they say, it ain’t over until it’s over.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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