Many people predicted a big news year in 2020 culminating with a presidential election.
Little did they realize how distant impeachment of a president would look less than two months before voters cast their ballots.
The impeachment of President Donald Trump has been overshadowed by the biggest viral pandemic to hit the world since the Spanish flu of 1918 and protests over the deaths of George Floyd and several other Black men and women at the hands of police.
Perhaps this election is splendidly timed to take the pulse of a nation – where do we stand in the handling of the pandemic, police treatment of people of color, the Black Lives Matter movement, the protests across the country, and calls to defund police departments or at least radically alter spending to hire more psychologists and social workers trained to assist people in crisis?
Paul DeBell, assistant professor of political science at Fort Lewis College, said voters can count on a couple things about Election 2020. First, it is going to be studied by political scientists for decades to come. Second, few credible people will be so injudicious as to hazard a guess as to how all this turns out on Nov. 3.
“There’s so many variables that ... will move different people in different ways. So, I’m going to be very interested to see where this goes and what it looks like. But I’m also very reticent to make many predictions because I think that is a bit of a fool’s errand for any election, but particularly for this one,” he said.
COVID-19, virtual campaignsDeBell believes the No. 1 question that will be answered Nov. 3 is related to campaigns’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic – how effective will virtual campaigning prove?
“The tried-and-true thinking on campaigning is that the best thing you can do is knock on doors to boost your turnout,” he said.
Some campaigns, principally among Democrats, have gone to almost complete virtual campaigns, doing things like FaceTime and Zoom couch parties and relying on texting. Other campaigns, principally among Republicans, have made more limited adaptations, still relying on traditional rallies, meetings and feet-on-the-ground, get-out-the-vote efforts.
“I will be really interested to see if some of the new digital and virtual ways of reaching out work effectively,” he said.
The effects of raceThe movements for racial justice and protests that sometimes have descended into violence that began around the deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police will be another factor that Election Day might shed light on.
“What issues are motivating to people is the other big thing that’s going on – movements for racial justice and counter protests,” Debell said. “We’ll find out more about what activates people to vote, but this is all so hard to predict. So, I’m going to be very interested to see where this goes and what it all looks like in the end.”
The Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are so close in age, Trump is 74 and Joe Biden is 77, DeBell is not convinced the election will clarify much about Americans’ views on aging.
“These are both very old candidates,” he said. “It will be tough for either to differentiate themselves on that count, especially since they both need to appeal to the majority of Americans who are significantly younger than them.”
Mail-in votingWhile Coloradans are largely familiar with mail-in voting, increased reliance on mailed-in, absentee ballots across the country also raises unique questions that seemingly will have to wait until Election Day for answers.
DeBell noted questions about the wisdom, efficacy and security of mail-in ballots seem quixotic among Coloradans, who have voted in full mail-in elections since 2013. But the practice remains unusual, even suspect along the East Coast and the Midwest, where the presidential race will largely be determined.
La Plata County Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Parker said she is more concerned about “bad information” about mail-in ballots, such as inaccurate claims they are less secure than casting ballots at traditional polling places.
“People are amazed when I tell them we check every signature, but we do,” she said.
Other safeguards are in place, she said. For example, ballots mailed to outdated addresses are not forwarded to new addresses; instead, voters must pick up their ballot at county clerk offices and confirm their new addresses.
Parker, who is president of the Colorado County Clerks Association, said she is fielding plenty of calls this year from clerks in other states looking for guidance on mail-in voting.
The benefits of mail-in ballots, Parker said, are coming to the fore in the first General Election held in the coronavirus era.
“People don’t want to go to the polls,” she said. “They want to protect themselves and their families.”
Nevertheless, the devil is in the details, and while Colorado has ironed out the kinks with mail-in elections, Parker worries states unfamiliar with the practice may overlook the importance of public information campaigns.
“Coloradans know not to mail their ballots when it’s too close to the election to ensure their ballot gets counted in a timely manner, but I think there is some concern that may not be the case across the country,” she said.
Colorado allows 24-hour drop-off boxes to collect ballots for almost a month preceding an election, something unheard of, even illegal, in many other states, and it is adaptations such as these that Colorado has taken that may be lacking in other states, Parker said.
DeBell shares Parker’s concern about other states’ ability to conduct adequate public information campaigns necessary to mesh voters’ behaviors with the schedule of the U.S. Postal Service. He also worries the quantity of absentee mail-in ballots in other states will delay the count election night.
In Colorado, county clerks can begin tabulating mailed-in ballots 15 days before Election Day. In some states, it’s illegal to begin the count before Election Day.
“It’s the public information angle – the timeline both in terms of getting the ballots in and then taking longer to count the ballots to call races – that concerns me,” he said.
“What will that do to public debate? What will that do in the context of an exceptionally polarized country? What will that do in the context of steadily declining trust in American institutions and perceived legitimacy? And that worries me because those are the lifelines of our political system,” DeBell said.
Unique variables like COVID-19, the racial justice movement and subsequent protests, and the increased use of mail-in ballots across the country will define election 2020.
“I think these things will affect turnout and therefore affect substantive outcomes in interesting ways that we will be studying for years to come,” DeBell said.