What to expect on Election Day, according to Brown's faculty experts

Eight faculty members shared their analysis on what the nation can expect on Election Day and beyond — at the polls, on the streets and potentially in the courts.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Who will win the presidential election — Donald Trump or Joe Biden? Will the result be decided before most Americans go to bed Tuesday night, or will the result be contested and potentially make its way to the Supreme Court? Will the streets fill with revelers, protesters or both? And will the potential chaos of Election Day and beyond worsen or ameliorate the the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States?

With less than a week to go until Election Day, Brown University's experts in political science, Congressional history, public health and economics have a variety of analyses and perspectives on these and more questions. But they all believe one thing is for sure: The 2020 general election will be remembered as one of the most dramatic and unusual in American history.

Eight University faculty members — including four who participated in a virtual panel discussion hosted by Brown's Office of the Provost on Thursday, Oct. 29 — shared their opinions on what the American people can expect on Election Day and the days that follow, from the polls to the streets to the courts.

The panel of faculty experts

Ashish JhaDr. Ashish Jha
Dean, School of Public Health
Professor of Health Services, Policy and Practice
Mark BlythMark Blyth
Director, Rhodes Center for International Economics and Finance
Professor of International Economics and International and Public Affairs
Wendy Schiller
Wendy Schiller
PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE
Michael Vorenberg 
Michael Vorenberg
Associate Professor of History
Jonathan Collins
Jonathan Collins
Assistant Professor of Education
Megan RanneyDr. Megan Ranney
DIRECTOR, BROWN-LIFESPAN CENTER FOR DIGITAL HEALTH
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF EMERGENCY MEDICINE AND HEALTH SERVICES, POLICY AND PRACTICE
Corey Brettschneider
Corey Brettschneider
Professor of Political Science
Richard ArenbergRichard Arenberg
Interim Director, Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy
Visiting Professor of the Practice of Political Science

On who will win the presidential election

Wendy SchillerSchiller: The state of play right now is that national polling, and some key swing-state polling, has Joe Biden ahead of Donald Trump in some cases beyond what we call the margin of error — that 3% where the polling numbers can change. We remember well that in 2016, Hillary Clinton had similar leads in many polls. Yet Biden’s lead seems a bit bigger: Some states that would once have been considered Republican strongholds, like Georgia, Texas and Arizona, show toss-ups between Biden and Trump.

Does that mean Biden will win? Not necessarily. But what it does mean is that voters are more motivated this year. We have many, many new voters. We have younger voters turning out in higher numbers than usual. We have older voters switching party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, particularly in the Southeast and Southwest. All of these changes could have implications for this and future elections, I think.

Mark BlythBlyth: It’s really hard to call this election when the governing party and its incumbent president plays by the same playbook of Fidesz in Hungary, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey. Strategically, the leaders of these parties have spent time in office stacking the judiciary at all levels with supporters, dismantling effective bureaucratic oversight of government, politicizing independent agencies and spending huge resources through captured media, creating a culture war to keep supporters permanently mobilized. Tactically, they have engaged in massive voter suppression efforts under the guise of rooting out non-existent fraud when under threat and have deployed these tools to make sure that if they don’t win elections with votes, they at least win by controlling, suppressing and contesting the election. As goes Poland, Hungary and Turkey, so does the United States. We are already an illiberal democracy. It’s time to face up to that fact.

Knowing that in this election the fate of both the presidency and Congress could be defined by razor-thin margins, GOP voter suppression tactics have come to the fore. Handpicked GOP judges in Wisconsin have declared that all ballots must be counted by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Meanwhile, several other states have no such restrictions. These inconsistencies have already been noted by Justice Neil Gorsuch as reasons for the Supreme Court, in its current 6-3 configuration, to claim an oversight role over state-level electoral laws. Judges in Texas, meanwhile, agree that it’s a good idea to provide just one ballot drop-off box for 4.7 million people, and a Michigan judge decided that voters who want to bring weapons to polls should be allowed to do so. Inconsistency, inconvenience, intimidation and the threat of intervention by a higher, and friendlier, authority all leads to one place — the courts. And that is exactly where the GOP wants this to end up, since they can’t win without them.

But there is risk in that reliance. The Supreme Court may be conservative in its opinions, but not its politics, and it may treasure its independence. But if that is all that is saving American democracy from its own worst impulses, then it has failed on its own terms.

Richard ArenbergArenberg: I expect a substantial victory for former Vice President Joe Biden. Given the pattern in recent cycles, the vote for president will greatly influence races farther down the ticket. I believe that Democrats will regain a majority in the U.S. Senate. My guess is that, in the end, Democrats may have as many as 54 or 55 seats.

On the accuracy of election polls

Wendy SchillerSchiller: It’s important to look not only at 2016 but also 2018. Look at white women. Donald Trump won the support of the majority of white women of all education levels in 2016, but he lost the support of the majority of college-educated white women in 2018. In districts that are considered competitive, many of the white women who had voted for Trump in 2016 chose Democratic female candidates of color over white Republican male candidates. This happened across the country. I think a shift has taken place.

Jonathan CollinsCollins: The thing I always reiterate is that in 2016, the polls didn’t lie. They were pretty indicative of what actually happened. They told us that Hillary Clinton was the more favorable candidate at the national level; she won 3 million more votes in the popular vote. They told us that at the state level, a lot of swing states were toss-ups; it turned out that a lot of those toss-up states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, went to President Trump.

There’s a popular notion that many white Americans are skewing the polls by concealing their support for President Trump. But keep this in mind: Before 2016, we saw Barack Obama win the presidency with the smallest percentage of white support of any president in American history. So I don’t believe the polls are inaccurate. What remains to be seen is whether the folks who have said they are supporting these candidates actually turn out to vote.

On the historical significance of the 2020 election

Richard ArenbergArenberg: This is, in my judgement, the most consequential election since the Civil War. The candidates are diametrically opposed whether measured by policy, character or simply preparedness to serve effectively as president.

Michael Vorenberg

Vorenberg: Many experts today are turning to the 2000 election and the 1918 pandemic for comparison with the extraordinary events of today. But I’ve been thinking about the contested election of 1876.

In the buildup to that election there was, tragically, a resurgence of anti-Black violence in the South. Reconstruction after the Civil War was framed in such a way to ensure that African Americans had the right to vote, and a number of measures, including Constitutional amendments, guaranteed African Americans equal rights. And the U.S. passed acts to enforce that equality: The U.S. Army broke up the Ku Klux Klan in a number of states in 1871 and 1872. But beginning in 1873, there was a backtrack that effectively began to allow white intimidation of Black voters in the South to resume.

There is evidence that intimidation of Black voters, and in some cases absolute paramilitary violence against them, affected the election results that year. As a result, the Democrats’ win in Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida was contested. The outcome was ultimately determined mostly by a widespread fear of revolution and worry of another Civil War: The Democrats agreed to concede the presidency to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in return for an end to Reconstruction.

The 1876 election reminds us that, as one reformer said at the time, “revolutions may go backward.”

This election has changed the way Americans expect that they can vote. That’s a really important development in American voting history.

Wendy Schiller

On voter turnout

Jonathan CollinsCollins: In my own work in 2016, what I found was that one of the primary factors driving Black American voter turnout was whether they had a sense of civic duty. Black Americans who felt a high level of civic duty were significantly more likely to vote in the 2016 election, even if they felt a lack of enthusiasm.

So when we think about what will drive Black voters to the polls in 2020, I think there are two things that will be key. One is the consistent dissemination of policy-centered messages, since Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and the resulting recession and want to know what the candidates will do to address these crises. And the other is gestures that center the humanity of Black people in this quest for a more perfect union.

We’re already seeing evidence that voter turnout among Black Americans may be very high. In Georgia, for example, Black Americans are already voting in record numbers.

What can get in the way of high turnout? A few things. One is a logical distrust in vote-by-mail programs, which can be stemmed by states that keep their ballot verification websites operating and up to date. Another is long lines due to COVID-19 precautions, particularly in areas where Black voters are more likely to be located. Black turnout is overwhelmingly driven by in-person voting, because again, that feeling of civic duty is an extreme motivator, and you get that feeling when you show up to a precinct to vote in person.

Despite the fact that we know a lot of the factors that drive turnout, the bigger concern is that there are always these statistical errata — random acts that determine why some voters show up and why others won’t.

Mark BlythBlyth: On the Democratic side, those who still play by the normal democracy “win some, lose some” playbook, which is the definition of taking an egg spoon to a knife fight, have placed their hope on a coalition of urban professionals, millennials, people of color and suburban women. Numbers-wise, that makes sense. Electoral College-wise, not so much. Indeed, the exclusion from their coalition of the white male working class — the “deplorables” of 2016, some 40 million in number — may create its own problems.

As 2016 amply demonstrated, while these white working-class voters were not the majority of the Trump base, their votes mattered disproportionately in the five “blue wall” states upon which the election result hinged. And while this demographic may be in decline nationally, in the Midwest they are still in the majority — and since 2012, they have voted more, not less, than other groups that the Democrats are relying on. So with anywhere between 30% and 50% of eligible voters, despite all the Sturm und Drang of this election, likely to sit it out, and with voters in states where white working class males still have clout deciding this election, the Democrats are relying on turnout and Trump revulsion to bring them over the line. It may work.

On the fate of the pandemic

Megan RanneyRanney: This election matters, deeply, for the health of our country. One candidate has said that the war against COVID-19 has already been won. The other is laying out a scientifically sound approach to prevention of transmission, in a way that will allow our country to survive physically, financially and emotionally. Unfortunately, no matter what the results are on Tuesday night, we are heading into a very dark couple of months, and any change will likely come too late for the 200,000+ Americans who will likely die from COVID-19 before Inauguration Day.

Ashish JhaJha: We have seen consistently that every time there are large gatherings indoors, there tend to be more spikes in cases of COVID-19. It is critically important that people watch the election results virtually with friends or in very small groups.  

Gathering outdoors is safer. If people get together to celebrate or protest, it is critical that they do so outdoors, and everybody wears a mask. Being indoors and not masked is very dangerous. If people do not adhere, given how much infection there is already in our communities, we will see large spikes and a lot of additional illness and death. 

Irrespective of who wins the presidential election, Donald Trump will be our president from now until January, so it is unlikely that we will see any meaningful change in federal efforts to control the pandemic. 

Therefore, it is critically important for states to take an even bigger leadership role in stemming the tide, given the current state of the pandemic with large outbreaks around the country. On Wednesday, Oct. 28, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo came out with new policies and restrictions and said it very well: “Right now, we don’t need to attend sports games or go to bars.” And we don’t need to attend indoor Election Day parties. If we do, we will drive more infections, and we risk getting sick ourselves. 

On the potential for a contested election result

Mark BlythBlyth: Three-fifths of me expects to wake up with this heading toward the Supreme Court. One of the features of the U.S. Constitution, an independent judiciary that was nonetheless partly appointed by politicians or elected on a party label, has now turned into a bug. Having figured out that this bug is their best hope of hanging on to power, the GOP will use it to the fullest extent.

Richard ArenbergArenberg: If the presidential contest is at all close in key battleground states, I expect challenges to develop in the courts and perhaps on the streets. Without any evidence, the president has repeatedly raised doubts about the validity of mail-in votes, currently being cast by millions of Americans. At numerous rallies, he has declared, “…the only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.” The president has refused to commit himself to a promise of peaceful transition of power should he lose. This represents a break with all of prior American history. As a result, we should be prepared on Nov. 3 to discover that the outcome of the election is not yet certain. Delays in the counting process are likely in some states.

If the race is at all close, substantial delays are possible. While there are a number of deadlines imposed by federal law as a part of the Electoral College process, the ultimate deadline is created by the Constitution. The 20th Amendment states: “The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January…”

While I remain optimistic that the margin of victory will be large enough to dictate a more normal process, all Americans should remain vigilant. Unlike any election in our lifetimes, we cannot take the election process in our democracy for granted.

Corey BrettschneiderBrettschneider: The peaceful transfer of power defines a constitutional system, so questions about whether Donald Trump will participate in a peaceful transfer of power go to the heart of constitutional democracy governed by the rule of law.

The second article of the Constitution outlines verbatim only one oath of office. The president must say, "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

That oath used to play a huge role in American politics. The only thing George Washington said in 1793, in the shortest recorded inaugural address in history, was essentially, “If I fail to respect the oath, what I want you to do is subject me to upbraidings and criticism — or if I really fail to respect it, I want you to subject me to constitutional punishment.”

For a lot of American history, the oath really didn’t matter, and the Constitution wasn’t a central question in American politics. But it certainly matters now.

I think it’s more likely that if Donald Trump does contest the results of the election, he’ll contest the results in court. And I’m not convinced that the arguments he is already making would fail to resonate there. Let’s remember that justices Kavanaugh, Roberts and Barrett played a role in determining the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. The ultimate question is whether, in contested states, there’s a deference to partisan secretaries of state or a demand to count ballots. If it’s the former, it’s more likely the result favors Trump.

I hope we go into 2021 continuing to use the lessons we learned [in 2020] to move forward.

Jonathan Collins

On the potential for unrest

Ashish JhaJha: We should anticipate that we may not have a winner on Election Day or the day after. Depending on how things go, people may feel the need to express their views through protests; this is a fundamental right in a democracy, and we have seen earlier this year that protests don’t have to be drivers of spread, as long as they happen outside and people mask up, wash hands and stay apart as best as possible. 

Jonathan CollinsCollins: Regardless of what happens from an institutional perspective, the outcome of the election could result in protests. What happens if the Donald Trump’s supporters don’t accept the outcome because it doesn’t work in their favor? What happens if a lot of people on the left — who have been very, very frustrated with this presidency — don’t accept a result that resembles that of 2016, where the popular vote is not what determines the presidency? Either way, this could boil over to public unrest in the streets.

Michael VorenbergVorenberg: Many have asked, if the populace reacts negatively to Donald Trump refusing to accept defeat, then what remedies does Trump have, in terms of the power to use the military to quell unrest? U.S. law says that the military cannot be used by the president domestically, with a few exceptions. Trump has already broken that law, in my opinion, by sending the military to the U.S.-Mexico border; he may try to use the military to combat those who take to the streets, even if they do it peacefully. But he may be unsuccessful: Military commanders, after all, swear an oath to uphold the Constitution and to not obey unlawful orders and the people who issue them.

Final thoughts

Ashish JhaJha: The election has pushed us to be most divided at a time when we need to be most united. Regardless of our individual political views, we must work collaboratively to make it through this pandemic and save lives. We must put our political differences aside when it comes to fighting this virus and following scientific guidance. 

Wendy SchillerSchiller: Most of us are absorbed in thinking about what could happen on Nov. 3. But remember that this election has changed the way Americans expect that they can vote. They will now expect that they can always vote by mail, that they can always vote early. Those things are never going away again. That’s a really important development in American voting history.

Michael VorenbergVorenberg: I remain optimistic about the will of the people prevailing over any individual person or fringe movement — whatever that will may be. Looking back to the 1876 election isn’t entirely discouraging: After that election, African American turnout at the polls did not disappear, and in fact African Americans continued to vote at higher rates than white voters. They exemplified the power of the will of the electorate in the face of violence and hatred. That can always triumph.

Jonathan CollinsCollins: We’ve learned a lot from the challenges we’ve faced in 2020, both from a public health perspective and from a racial injustice perspective. But we have a tendency to forget our history. I hope we go into 2021 continuing to use the lessons we learned to move forward and fix what went wrong.

Corey BrettschneiderBrettschneider: A lot of us would like to forget the year 2020, but we’ve got to remember it to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I’m hopeful for our future: We’ve had crises before and we’ve recovered by remembering our past.