The below post is based off remarks delivered to students at Northwestern University on October 19, 2020.
I first paid attention to an election and participated in one in 1988—long ago. Every election is different, and the 2000 Gore v. Bush experience was rough.
But this autumn’s contests have me on the edge of my seat.
For sure, I am curious to see which candidate will win the presidency, and who will win in the various congressional elections.
But I also am intrigued to see how well the elections system performs. And I use that word “system” loosely—there are more than 178,000 voting precincts in this country, and these precincts are scattered over 6,500 jurisdictions. America has national elections but these elections are administered locally, and local officials have great discretion to set policy about who votes, when, and how.
COVID-19 has put state and local election policies in play. State legislators have debated changing elections laws to contend with the health perils of in-person voting. Elections officials have taken steps to modify some elections regulations—like reconsidering the requirement that an absentee voter acquire a witness or visit a notary. There also have been many lawsuits surrounding elections laws and regulations. They include suits to abolish the notary and witness requirements that some states have. There have been suits that argue that a person’s susceptibility to COVID-19 should qualify them to vote absentee. There have been legal battles over how long an elections administrator can wait to receive ballots.
To a significant degree, these disputes over election policies have tended to involve a debate between those who want to expand access and those who raise concerns over the possibility of fraud. Each side can and does argue that the legitimacy of the election is at stake. Those who want to broaden access raise the specter of disenfranchisement and voter suppression. Those who warn against making changes that increases fraud warn of the possibility of a stolen election.
Caught in the middle are elections officials. It is they who must administer the election in accordance with the law and regulations, which are shifting; it is they who have to explain to the public who can vote, when, and how; and it is they who are having to respond to a public who wants to know its options for acquiring and casting a ballot during a pandemic.
So, yes, I am on the edge of my seat.
I also should say that I also am worried about untruths being spread about the election and the results. The Internet is a wonderful thing but it also has been and will be abused to spread falsehoods about the election. I mean, it was only a month ago that there was a national panic that falsely accused the Trump Administration of trying to steal the election by corrupting the Postal Service and its delivery of absentee ballots.
How the present election is shaping up? How does it compare to 2016?
Polling: In 2016 pollsters predicted a close presidential election, but nearly all thought Hillary Clinton would win. The elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate was predicted to show little change in the status quo, and that is what we got. The GOP continued to hold both chambers.
Today, the polls show Trump behind on the national vote by 5 to 10%, which is way more than in 2016. But, with the vote close in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania—I certainly am not going to place any bets on the victor. For certain, Democrats will continue to control the House, and they seem highly likely to gain seats in the Senate.
Turnout: In 2016, 140 million individuals, or 63% of eligible voters, cast a ballot. In 2020, I think both of those numbers will increase a little.
Voting before election day: In 2016, 41 percent of all ballots —about 57.4 million— were cast before Election Day. In 2020, I think a higher percentage will vote early. Already nearly 30 million individuals have voted.
Voting by mail: In 2016, 23 percent of ballots (32 million) were cast by mail. I think in 2020 that number will increase significantly. Some 52 million absentee ballots have been requested for this election. And in 2016, approximately 80.1 percent of absentee ballots that were transmitted to voters were returned and processed. If the past is prologue, 80 percent of 52 million allot requested would make for 41 million votes by mail in 2020.
The results: In 2016 we knew nearly all the results by the end of election night. In 2020, unless we get a landslide, we quite possibly may not know the results for days or even weeks afterward. If that occurs, I do hope Americanskeep their heads and let the processes work.