What Just Happened? Richmond Students Raise Election Questions.

A poll worker stamps a voters ballot before dropping it into a secure box at a ballot drop off location on October 13, 2020. (Photo by Sergio Flores/Getty Images)

By Julia Raimondi

November 12, 2020

Wednesday’s virtual panel took questions from University of Richmond students.

RICHMOND-Even with the presidential election officially called for Joe Biden, anxiety among Americans is still high. There are 70 days until inauguration. That is a lot of time for stress to fester and build. 

At the University of Richmond, the Sharp Viewpoint Series attempted to calm some of those fears Wednesday. The university held a virtual panel “The 2020 Elections: What Happened?,” moderated by political science professor, Dr. Ernest McGowen.

Before the panel even began, questions poured into the chat box. One person asked if Pennsylvania violated the Constitution by changing its policies on mail-in ballots. Another wondered Democrats insisted Joe Biden won the presidential election even though not all states had completely finished counting votes. A third questioned what type of media could be trusted to be factual and nonpartisan. 

Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, and Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic political analyst and consultant, did their best to answer audiences’ questions. They also provided analysis on where the presidential campaigns went well, where they went terribly wrong, and what the election results mean for the future of American democracy.

“It’s simple,” Marsh said. “There was no law or constitution that was broken. [Mail-in ballot policy] was decided by the people who were elected by the people of Pennsylvania to handle COVID-19. It was approved by one and all. Elections are state matters and are handled by the states.”

No Evidence of Fraud

Both panelists agreed that there appeared to be no fraud or wrongdoing in the election. Cary had some reservations, however, about whether or not the media should be allowed to call an election. 

Cary said she believed that only state boards could decide which candidate won, not a news outlet. While there was precedent for the media calling it in the past, Cary said that the year was too unusual for normal precedent to apply. She believed President Trump was well within his rights to demand that all votes be counted before the election was formally called.

Marsh completely disagreed. 

“Historically, the media calls the race based on the votes that have been cast,” Marsh said. “In every year. We voted during the Civil War, we’ve gone through depressions, all of it. And they’ve always been right.”

Both panelists did refer to Biden as the president-elect, even if Cary at times insinuated Trump could somehow still win the election, despite decisively losing the electoral college and popular vote. Both panelists also didn’t seem too worried about a smooth transition in January and appeared optimistic that the process would happen as it should. 

The reason why both Cary and Marsh were so optimistic was the level of involvement in the election from the American public. There was a higher than usual turnout on Election Day and during early voting. The votes, both said, decisively showed Americans wanted some type of substantial change.

For Republicans, Cary said that change was to pull away from the chaos caused by COVID-19 and focus on restoring the economy. That campaign message was successful, resulting in Republican wins down-ballot and an expansion in the party coalition to include more voters of color. 

While Democrats didn’t make the gains they were expecting at the Congressional and state levels, they did take home the largest prize of the presidency. Marsh said it was Biden’s consistency about taking the pandemic seriously and separating himself from the personality of Trump that got him the win.

How Polling Got It Wrong, and How It Can Be Better

The polling was again inconsistent about these results, in a similar vein as they were in 2016. If polling wanted to be used as a serious and reliable tool again, Cary and Marsh said, the process needs to be completely transformed. 

To start, media outlets need to hire better pollsters. Cheap pollsters mean less accurate results, Marsh said, and can mislead audiences and even campaigns. Accurate pollsters do exist but they are more expensive than what most companies are willing to pay for. 

But even with better pollsters, the biggest issue was getting Americans to answer polls and to answer them accurately.

“I think the reason so many polls are wrong is there is a disconnect between some of these polling organizations and regular Americans who may or may not be comfortable giving political positions,” Cary said. 

She also added that the change in technology makes it harder for organizations to get people to answer. When Cary had a landline telephone, she got polled all the time by Gallup and Pew. Now that she has a cell phone, she never answers numbers she doesn’t recognize. Cary suggested that for others, it was the same.

“The technology has not caught up with the polling industry,” Cary said. “They need to figure out how to poll people more accurately in the future and figure out the technology aspect to get people to answer.”

COVID: How Biden Won

At the end, both panelists decisively agreed that it was the candidates’ handling of COVID-19 that decided the election. Trump’s campaign took the risks of COVID-19 and held large rallies anway, alarming those that were taking the pandemic seriously. Biden’s campaign instead did things such as drive-in rallies and virtual events. In the end, it was Biden’s dedication to taking the pandemic as a serious threat that helped him win.

“I think what people saw in Joe Biden, who was very cautious about COVID, it showed that he’d actually take action,” Marsh said. “The Trump team was very hands-off and in your face about it with the rallies and without masks, and they were felled by it too.”

What Comes Next

Now that the presidential election is over, political sights are already set on the next partisan battle: the Senate. Georgia is holding run-off elections for both of its senators in January and it is a high stakes game. If Democrats don’t win at least one seat, the Republicans will keep control of the Senate until at least midterms.

Who wins the Senate will determine many things about the Biden presidency, the biggest being whether or not they will have to deal with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as Majority Leader. Even though Biden cut deals with McConnell in the past, Marsh believed that wouldn’t be so easy now.

“I hope for the country’s sake that they can work things out,” Marsh said. “The margins are so tight on both sides that there probably will have to be more compromises. But at this point, its too late to take action.”

Cary said that the outcome of the Senate will also determine Biden’s cabinet nominees. If Democrats win the majority, the progressive side of the party will likely push for him to nominate more progressive secretaries. If Republicans win, Biden’s picks will be more moderate or conservative. But the only way to know for sure how it will go is to wait and see.

That waiting game isn’t good for anyone’s stress levels, but Cary offered some advice.

“I sense from some of the people in my life that there’s a fair amount of anxiety right now,” Cary said. “I offer patience. This will all work out. We will get through this and I am greatly heartened by the level of enthusiasm in our country for politics right now and for young people to stick with it and hopefully change the world.”

Julia Raimondi is a freelance writer for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].

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