At Home with Harvard: Election Day

In a year like no other, read a selection of Harvard Magazine stories on the forces that will shape the presidential election outcome. 

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. 


Michael Fabiano, A.L.M. ’16, in the AP newsroom.
Photo courtesy of the AP

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  


Attendees of the Cross-Cultural Voting Kickoff smile as Trisha Prabhu ’22 takes a screenshot. 
Screenshot captured by Trisha Prabhu ’22 


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


More from “At Home with Harvard”

  • Spring Blooms: Your guide to accessing the Arnold Arboretum as the seasons turn in Boston
  • Harvard in the Movies: Our favorite stories about Harvardians on screen
  • The Literary Life: Our best stories about the practice and study of literature 
  • Night at the Museum: Our coverage of Harvard’s rich museums and collections
  • Nature Walks: Walking, running, and biking in Greater Boston’s green spaces, even while social distancing
  • Supporting Local Businesses: Our extensive coverage of local restaurants and retailers, and how you can support them during this time of crisis
  • Medical Breakthroughs: Our best stories going deep into the ideas and personalities that will shape the medical care of tomorrow
  • Rewriting HistoryFrom race and colonization to genetics and paleohistory, our favorite stories about the people reshaping the study of history
  • The Climate Crisis: Highlights from our wide-ranging coverage of the environment
  • Crimson Sports Illustrated: With 2020 winter sports ending early and the spring collegiate season wiped out almost entirely, we look back at Crimson highlights from past years. 
  • The Real History of Women at Harvard: Stories covering the admission of women, the Harvard-Radcliffe merger, the rise of women in the faculty ranks, Harvard’s first woman president, and more
  • The Undergraduate: Our favorite student essays on the undergraduate experience
  • The Secret Lives of Animals: From zoology and evolutionary science to animal-rights law to the joys of local wildlife, a selection of our favorite animal stories
  • Harvard on the Small Screen: Our coverage of the creators, writers, and actors in your favorite TV shows
  • Extraordinary Lives: From our “Vita” section, extraordinary profiles of authors, artists, activists, and more
  • Great Legal Minds: Our favorite stories on the minds reshaping American law
  • Harvard History through a New Lens: Some of our most notable stories about obscure, dark, or surprising episodes in Harvard’s history
  • Health and Fitness: Our extensive coverage of Harvard’s breakthough health and wellness research
  • Pride Month: Stories of Harvard's LGBTQ life, research and history
  • Inequality in America: Stories of America’s extreme inequality
  • The Immigrant Experience: A selection of our writing on immigration, displacement, and the global refugee crisis
  • Harvard in the WorldHarvard Magazine’s coverage of the University’s expanding global reach
  • Theater & Broadway: Harvardians take to the stage.
  • American Democracy: Our coverage of the nation's ailing democracy
  • Traveling for the Story: Stories from all over the world
  • Library Treasures: Our coverage of Harvard’s libraries, more relevant than ever in an online world
  • Women in Sports: Celebrating women athletes raising the bar in their sports
  • Back to School: Our coverage of the freshman experience at Harvard
  • Remarkable Alumni: Some Harvard matriculants really took the road less traveled. 
  • Sounds of Music: A selection of our stories on musicians, composers, conductors, music scholars, and more 

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