In this Aug. 5, 2020, file photo, vote-by-mail ballots are shown in sorting trays at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton, Wash., south of Seattle. Washington is one of the states that does all vote-by-mail, a voting method getting more attention due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
In this Aug. 5, 2020, file photo, vote-by-mail ballots are shown in sorting trays at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton, Wash., south of Seattle. Washington is one of the states that does all vote-by-mail, a voting method getting more attention due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Experts tell voters to prepare for full presidential-election results to take days or weeks to fully tally.

A Democratic data analytics company is warning it might look like President Donald Trump has won on the night of the presidential election. But after mail-in ballots are counted, the race could tighten significantly and show Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is victorious after all.

Josh Mendelsohn, the CEO of Hawkfish, a data analytics firm funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, calls this scenario a “red mirage.” 

“We’re sounding an alarm saying that this is a very real possibility, that the data is going to show on election night an incredible victory for Donald Trump,” Mendelsohn said in an interview with Axios on HBO. “When every legitimate vote is called and we get to that final day, which will be some day after Election Day, it will in fact show that what happened on election night was exactly that, a mirage. It looked like Donald Trump was in the lead and he fundamentally was not when every ballot gets counted.”

The reason? Far more Democrats are expected to vote by mail this fall in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. In contrast, polls have shown that more Republicans plan to vote in person on Election Day. And in many states, mail-in ballots can’t be counted until Election Day, meaning those heavily Democratic votes could be counted more slowly than in-person votes.

For months, Trump has argued without any evidence that mail-in ballots are “fraudulent” and that an election that relies heavily on the Postal Service could be “rigged.” In reality, out of the 250 million mail-in ballots cast since 2000, there have been 143 cases of fraud, an infinitesimal amount.

But Trump’s lies about mail-in voting could encourage his supporters to erroneously believe any change in margin after the night of the election is also fraudulent.

The Transition Integrity Project (TIP) is a bipartisan election monitoring group made up of political consultants, academics and former government officials. It has also warned that there could be “massive unrest” in the United States as mail-in votes are counted over several days after Nov. 3.

The group simulated what might happen after Election Day, playing out four different scenarios: a narrow Biden win, a wide Biden victory, and undetermined result (much like the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore) and a narrow Trump victory. According to their results, every scenario, except a major Biden win, ended in unrest. 

“We anticipate lawsuits, divergent media narratives, attempts to stop the counting of ballots, and protests drawing people from both sides,” TIP wrote in their June report. “The potential for violent conflict is high, particularly since Trump encourages his supporters to take up arms.” TIP also notes particular concern over how Trump could use the executive branch to defy the popular vote. 

“Federal laws provide little guidance for how Congress should resolve irregularities when they convene in a Joint Session on Jan. 6, 2021. Of particular concern is how the military would respond in the context of uncertain election results,” they wrote. “Participants in our exercises of all backgrounds and ideologies believed that Trump would prioritize personal gain and self-protection over ensuring an orderly administrative handoff to his successor.” 

The possibility of a contested election isn’t new for America. The trend of more mail-in ballots delaying Democratic victories began in the 2018 midterms, when what was supposed to be a “blue wave” election lookeded much closer than expected. But as mail-in ballots were tallied, Democrats continued to win close races. The New York Times reports that on the night of the election it looked like Democrats had won only 26 seats. By the time all the ballots were counted, Democrats had actually taken 41 seats. 

The 2000 election is the last time a presidential election wasn’t determined for several days. The election between Bush and Gore was so close in Florida that state law required a recount. After a Supreme Court ruling against a manual recount of votes, Bush ultimately won Florida by a margin of 0.009% and took 271 votes in the electoral college, which is just one vote more than is needed to win. 

According to TIP, the closest example of an election like the one America will see this fall is from 1876. It was immediately after the end of the Civil War, and a time of extreme partisanship and disenfranchisement. 

The TIP also notes, however, that many of the harshest scenarios are avoidable and recommended planning ahead for a contested election, focusing on providing an accurate vote count, and addressing lies about voter fraud and violence. They also encouraged Americans to get used to the idea of a rocky administrative transition.

“These risks can be mitigated; the worst outcomes of the exercises are far from a certainty,” TIP wrote in their report. “It is incumbent upon elected officials, civil society leaders and the press to challenge authoritarian actions in the courts, in the media, and in the streets through peaceful protest.”