At Home with Harvard
At Home with Harvard: Election Day
This round-up is part of Harvard Magazine’s series “At Home with Harvard,” a guide to what to read, watch, listen to, and do while social distancing. Read the previous selections, featuring articles about climate change, racial justice, alumni musicians, and more, here.
In this year like no other, in an election whose stakes feel existential to both Democrats and Republicans, record numbers of Americans have already cast their ballots. Below, we’ve curated a selection of Harvard Magazine stories on the forces that will determine the outcome—from the Electoral College to campaign spending to the press—which we hope offers a measure of clarity in an election that has the potential to be confusing, contested, and protracted.
Before speaking with Michael Fabiano, A.L.M. ’16, for “Making the 2020 Election Call,” I hadn’t thought much about how votes are processed on Election Night. I knew the Associated Press “called” states, but I didn’t know what that process entailed, and maybe more importantly, what would happen if it decided not to make the calls one year. It turns out the AP plays a major role on election night, sending out thousands of stringers who gather results from polling places as soon as the results are available. When there’s enough information to make a call—based on the vote count and other context—AP does so. Without AP’s effort and coordination, the results would take far longer to process. Though many are worried that the results of this year’s election may be harder to evaluate, Fabiano is optimistic that the organization will do just fine. “You know, we’ve been doing this through the Civil War, through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and every conflict,” he says. “We have done it through all these conflicts and panics over the years, and it’s going to be the same process.”
~Jacob Sweet, Staff Writer/Editor
My interview this summer with Stirling professor of history and social policy Alexander Keyssar, author of Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? continues to be a favorite of our readers. “Until the 2000 election,” he told me, “it was widely believed that if there was a ‘wrong winner’ election [an election where the winner loses the popular vote], we’d get rid of the Electoral College,” a system that doesn’t resemble anything that any other country does. That didn’t happen, of course, and then we got 2016. However you feel about the Electoral College (Keyssar isn’t a fan), this conversation is a smart, challenging look into the history of an institution that will be key to the outcome of next week’s election. Read an excerpt from Keyssar’s book here, and also read our story on potential paths to Electoral College reform here.
Photograph by Martha Stewart.
If you want to understand how the U.S. court system (whose decisions will be critical to counting votes in this election) became so politicized, there’s no one better than political scientist Maya Sen. Listen to (or read) our interview with Sen about her new book, The Judicial Tug of War: How Lawyers, Politicians, and Ideological Incentive Shaped the American Judiciary on Harvard Magazine’s podcast, “Ask a Harvard Professor.”
~Marina Bolotnikova, Associate Editor
“There are more UFO and Bigfoot sightings than documented cases of voter impersonation,” quipped one Texas Democrat. So wrote Alex Keyssar in 2012 (it seems so much longer ago than that) about the then-emerging topic of voter suppression, and its partisan slant. His feature “Voter Suppression Returns,” drawing on decades of research on voting and elections, concluded about photo-ID laws (which address only the virtually nonexistent problem of impersonation at a polling place) and other restrictions, that “the laws themselves are unworthy of a modern, sophisticated nation that identifies itself as democratic. They are not effective policy instruments; they chip away at the core democratic value of inclusiveness; and they resonate with the worst, rather than the best, of our political traditions.”
Idrees Kahloon ’16, an applied-math concentrator, researched campaign spending on political advertisements. As he wrote in “Does Money Matter?” in 2016, “Perhaps the best way to conceptualize political advertisements, then, is as an arms race. One candidate’s dominance in the ad game, if unanswered, will soon lead to electoral advantage, but another candidate’s advertisements will tend to cancel out that gain. If campaigns matter, then campaign money does, too. True, turning advertising into actual electoral advantage is an expensive endeavor: the cost of the 232 positive ads needed to deliver a single-point increase is more than $100,000 in relatively small markets like Iowa and New Hampshire, and more than that for the super PACs (which aren’t covered by the federal law requiring television stations to charge official campaigns the lowest possible rates). But these large sums are well within the means of the modern super PAC, the most prominent of which can expect to raise several million dollars in a week.” Now a Washington reporter for The Economist, Kahloon is covering a national election that is expected to cost in the multiple billions of dollars, with more than $100 million being invested in individual U.S. Senate races in such small-population states as Iowa and Montana.
~John S. Rosenberg, Editor
I had the pleasure of attending the “Cross-Cultural Voting Kickoff,” a panel discussion organized by 27 student affinity organizations. The discussion educated attendees about voting rights, the systems in place that cause voter suppression, and the steps that can be taken to help all eligible voters turn in their ballot. Then, a representative from every student organization spoke about why voting is important for them. Toward the end of the event, news broke that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. The group was speechless and fraught with emotion for several minutes. The title of this piece comes from a student who finally broke the silence to say, “Our vote counts.” And it sure does.
~Kristina DeMichele, Digital Content Strategist
There’s an odd phenomenon these days, in which politics-related news stories from just a half-decade ago feel like dispatches from a long-distant era, and yet seem full of achingly prescient details foreshadowing our current reality. One example is this 2012 story by Peter Saalfield, “The Art of the Dodge,” examining how presidential candidates avoid questions they don’t want to answer. Just a few years before President Trump began blustering his way past reporters’ queries, and the task of tallying his falsehoods became a full-time newsroom job, professor of public policy Todd Rogers, a Harvard Kennedy School behavioral scientist and social psychologist, studied the subtle tactics that enable politicians to evade certain subjects without their listeners noticing. “Humans simply have a limited attention span,” the story notes, while Rogers explains that paying attention to a speaker involves taking in an overwhelming amount of information. This line, from midway through the story, rings truer now than ever: “When watching a presidential debate, for example, viewers are considering not only the questions and answers but also the speakers’ body language, facial expressions, and overall likability. This adds yet another level of cognitive challenge.”
Photograph by Denise Cross Photography/Flickr (Photograph has been cropped from original.)
Rogers appears again in this brief 2014 story, “The Emotions of Election Day,” about a Kennedy School study on election-day emotions. Losing the 2012 presidential election “made Republican voters far sadder than winning the election made Democratic voters happier,” the piece notes, as Rogers, one of the study’s authors, explains the emotional pain of a partisan loss. Later, he elaborates: “We know that partisanship shapes how we think, who we’re friends with, how we live, how we judge people,” he says. “Given all those things, partisanship really shapes our identity and our well-being.” Yes. Yes, it does.
~Lydialyle Gibson, Associate Editor
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