An analysis of America’s electoral process; Q and A with Dr. Jim Clotfelter
November 6, 2020
Dr. Jim Clotfelter was a Vice-Chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for 25 years and professor and head of the political science department. Prior to his work at the university, Clotfelter was a reporter for Time Magazine and Atlanta and Durham, NC newspapers covering the civil rights movements. The Southerner reached out to Dr. Clotfelter to discuss the current presidential election.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted this election?
It certainly had an enormous impact on the way in which the election was carried out. We have never seen as many people asking for absentee ballots before. There are 5 states in the country that do all of their voting by mail, but outside those five states, there has not been a large tradition of people using absentee ballots, people used early voting or voted on election day.
I don’t think we have any idea how many absentee ballots there really are until we come to the end of the election because some of the people who asked for absentee ballots wound up voting in person, but whatever it is, it is going to end up being the biggest number we have ever seen.
In terms of the pandemic’s effect on how people voted, I’m not sure it’s going to have as much of an effect as people thought it would. A lot of the criticism of Mr.Trump and the Trump Administration has been about his handling of the pandemic, but if you look at the election results, he has 4 million more votes than he got last election and generally has support in the same places with many of the same people. It’s not the country-wide rejection that people thought it would be. Substantively it had an effect on some people but did not sweep across the country as some people had expected.
Why do you think that the pandemic did not change as many people’s opinions on the president as expected?
It is attributed to the extent of partisan polarization and the extent to which people are tied to their parties. Democrats to the Democrats and Republicans to the Republicans. The number of people who are willing to separate themselves from that partisan attachment is even smaller than we thought it was. Certainly, political scientists and political observers knew that we were in the most partisan, most polarized time in many many years, but it is even more polarized than some of us thought.
Is it a big deal, historically or in any other sense, that we did not get the results of the election on election night?
It may be that this is one of the new normal things that we should expect. What we have is a number of states that are divided incredibly closely. I was noticing in my state of North Carolina the number of statewide offices in which the winner got 50.1% and the loser got 49.9%. You can’t get much closer than that. Particularly with the complications with the absentee ballots, that added another day or two to the election.
In the future, presumably, there will be fewer absentee votes, so it will take less time to call the election, but we may have to get over the notion of election night eve if we continue to have seven or eight battleground states that are so evenly divided.
One thing I think ought to be noted is how well the election infrastructure has done, given the fact that this is entirely decentralized and this is voluntary labor. Given all the things that can go wrong, and all the criticisms and harassment and issues with the post office, that the way that local boards of elections and voting groups have operated is quite admirable.
What are your thoughts on this time of uncertainty? The election was two days ago and we still do not have an official winner.
We had such an anxiety-riddled year, I’m not sure too many people will feel too different. Between the pandemic and the controversy about the police and protests and elections. Mr.Trump is different from anyone else who has ever been in the White House. When you put all those things together, we have a whole country that’s on the verge of an anxiety attack, and I’m not sure these last two days have made it any worse.
Is there anything in history that we can compare this to?
There are, but you have to go so far back that it doesn’t help a lot. The election of 1876 went on for a long time, and it wound up being a negotiated deal with all kinds of issues. That is an extreme example. In modern times there was the election of 1960 when John Kennedy was elected, that was very close but I don’t think it went on for very long.
Of course, the election of 2000, when George Bush was elected and chosen over Al Gore. Florida became the center because it was so close in the country, whoever won Florida was going to win. Unfortunately, Florida had almost every kind of voting mishap you could have. The famous hanging chads, which were a piece of voting machinery that was extremely hard for people to understand. The counting went on for many weeks and wound up being settled by the Supreme Court. 2000 would be an important recent example of something nobody wants to go through again.
What do you think of President Trump’s declaration of victory at 2:30 am on Wednesday morning? What were his reasons for doing that?
For the past few months, he had tried to delegitimize ballots counted after midnight. The reason I think is because he knew that Democrats were much more likely to ask for mail-in ballots. Therefore the later they are counted, the more likely they are to be Democrats, even though they are perfectly legal and legitimate and came in in time and met all the requirements of the state. There is nothing suspect about them other than the fact that they might be against him.
Presidential candidates are usually very careful about not declaring themselves the victor until the Associated Press or PBS declares them the victor. This is not something the candidates do themselves, there is no voting commission in the country that makes this declaration so it is usually done by the news media. It is highly unusual for Mr.Trump to try and assert that himself.
Are there any historical examples we can look to of candidates claiming voter fraud?
I think there is nothing even close to Mr.Trump on that score. Certainly, campaigns have investigated voter fraud, as they have every right to do. The bulk of the evidence over the last 30-40 years is that there is precious little voter fraud. Mr.Trump had a commission that circulated for around a year, trying to find instances of voter fraud, and finally disbanded because they didn’t find substantial evidence.
The president has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. How can he uphold this refusal?
My guess is that this is bombast and this is not something that will actually happen. The military and law enforcement officials are not going to follow any unconstitutional or inappropriate order. He can make speeches as he wants to, but if everyone declares Mr.Biden as the victor there is a process to go through and essentially the electoral votes will be confirmed by congress.
If Trump does lose the election, what role do you think he will play over the next four years?
The thinking is that he will try to create a news network, like Fox News but even Trumpy-er. He will likely use that as a platform to continue to opine as he has been doing on American politics and support candidates who he thinks are like him. He has a lot of financial difficulties that he needs to get out of and that might affect what he does.
The national polls showed Biden with a much stronger lead, and some say were misleading. How do you think the issues with polling can be addressed?
In an election with so much excitement on both sides, because we do have an enormous turnout, that’s different than anything the polling industry has ever dealt with. More Trump voters showed up than they ever thought would. Again, the polling industry is not interested in intentionally making something bigger or smaller than it is, they want to be accurate. You have to make certain kinds of assumptions with who is going to show up to vote. It looks like they may have underestimated who would show up to vote for Mr.Trump.
Why do you think voter turnout was so high this year?
The phrase that Mr.Biden uses, and sometimes Mr.Trump, is that this is a battle for the soul of America. Those are pretty grand words. Usually, campaigns are fighting about particular issues, but in this case, we had two sides that are just about the same size, who felt that this was an existential race, or that this was a race to deal with the most important values, or that this was a campaign about our group vs yours. Both sides thought terrible things would happen if they lost, and that motivated people.
Still, by the standard of some European countries, 67% is not a big percentage, but it is by the standards of this country.
Why do we have such low voter turnout when compared to the entire population of eligible voters?
People don’t feel it’s important enough. That clearly changed for some people this time because there was a higher turnout, but that is a factor. In part, because this is a large messy complicated country and trying to appeal to people all across this big messy country with one message is challenging. Some people feel that they aren’t represented, so why show up?
Part of the story is that we don’t make voting easy in the country. There have been proposals for years to have election day on Saturdays and have early voting go on even longer. They have never been successful in part because the Republican party has decided that their interests are not served by having a large turnout. They have worked hard to discourage people from voting, so we have a number of means that different state legislatures have put into place to make it harder to vote because they think that lower-income people and minority voters will vote against them. The Republican party has increasingly tried to discourage voting and make it hard, which is shocking. The intentional suppression of the vote I’m afraid will always continue as long as one party thinks its interests are served by suppressing votes.
What would you say to those who feel that voting is not important?
I would try to find something that they cared about and show them how our government can make it more likely to happen or keep it from happening. If there is a personal problem that is very important, like healthcare, which some people do not see as a political issue. You try to talk to people in terms of where they are and find out what they care about. But again, we are a big messy country and it is hard to find all those different points of view.
America is so divided right now, do you think as a country we can come back from this?
The country is so polarized and I’m afraid it will be for a while. Certainly, Mr.Biden has emphasized over and over again that he will be president of all the people, red America and blue America. Mr.Trump has never said that. Mr.Biden is not a threatening figure, it’s hard to imagine someone feeling threatened by Joe Biden. I think he will try to do his best should he win, but it will still be very hard.
What we don’t have, what we had for example in World War Two, we had the war effort to pull people together, and for years after, we had the threat of communism and the competition with Russia that to some degree unified people across party lines. It’s hard to find what that unifying issue is going to be. We would hope that it would be American patriotism and that’s what Mr.Biden would try to show. For example, in dealing with the pandemic, that is a perfect example of something that individuals can’t solve. It has to be a collective sense that we are all in this together.