2020 Elections: Political science professors discuss contentious issues at the polls

Media Contact: Tony LaRoche, 401-874-4894 |
: Christopher Parker
Christopher Parker

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 13, 2020 – While the COVID-19 pandemic could create chaos for elections across the United States, our politically polarized times have made elections a flash point for conflict.

In part two of a two-part Q&A, University of Rhode Island Political Science Professors Christopher Parker and Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz discuss such contentious issues as the Wisconsin election, mail ballots and voter suppression and fraud. Read part one.

Q: Can you explain the concern around what happened recently in Wisconsin? Why is it important? 

Parker: States are given broad authority to determine the time, place and manner of their elections, so the issue in Wisconsin dealt more with the powers of a governor attempting to change the procedures for an election on the eve of the election. Had the Wisconsin legislature decided to postpone the election or to extend the deadline for absentee voting, there likely would have been no legal issue. Instead, the Republican majority wanted to move ahead with the election under current procedures, so a district court first extended the deadline for absentee voting, and then Gov. Tony Evers banned all in-person voting until the summer.

Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz
Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz

These actions were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, respectively. The U.S. Supreme Court said that changing the timeline for absentee voting so close to the election would create confusion and undermine the integrity of the election, while the state court said that the governor did not have the power to issue an emergency order to cancel in-person voting.

This suggests that there is an extremely high bar for the government to justify making significant changes to elections at the last minute. However, it does not mean that states cannot change their election laws and procedures to accommodate our current circumstances. None of the court orders forbid states from increasing early voting, expanding mail-in voting, or taking other precautions to protect public health and safety. But these decisions do suggest that if states (or Congress) want to make these changes, they should be proactive and start putting them into place sooner rather than later. Changes made to election procedures will be harder to implement and attract more legal challenges the closer they get to Election Day.

Q: There obviously were a lot of disturbing reports of voter suppression in the 2016 general election. Is there any reason to think that things have changed? 

Pearson-Merkowitz: No. There is legal voter suppression and illegal voter suppression. The legal voter suppression includes clearing the roles. For example, Florida is famous for clearing its rolls right before the 2000 election. It dropped anyone who hadn’t voted in so many years and anyone whose name was the same as that of a felon. So, if there was a Joe Williams who was a felon and there were five other Joe Williams in Florida, they all got dropped off the voter rolls. In the U.S., we don’t have laws that protect people’s right to vote without considerable effort. We place the onus on people to make sure they’re registered and that their name has not been erroneously removed from the voter rolls. That’s very different from other countries.

Some states have also rolled back early voting, taking away days like Sundays when African-Americans are more likely to vote. Some states also – and this is really rampant – decrease the number of polling places. That’s legal as well, but it can greatly suppress the vote.

Then there’s illegal voter suppression. There’s a great book, “Keeping Down the Black Vote,” and it documents massive voter suppression of black communities. Tactics to suppress voting include sending police to monitor districts or asking people before they go into the polls if they have outstanding parking tickets, or advertising that the election is on Wednesday instead of Tuesday. Each tactic is meant to scare people away from the polls or make it impossible to vote.

So, would I say it’s getting better? I would say certainly not. I think it’s getting worse.

Q: Do you expect to see an increase in voting by mail? Are there any legitimate concerns of voter fraud with mail ballots?

Pearson-Merkowitz: I expect to see a lot more absentee ballots, but I don’t expect a lot of states to all of a sudden adopt vote by mail. It’s a large financial investment and it takes a lot of time to adopt voting by mail. In Rhode Island, we already vote on paper so we could probably do it easier than most other states. We could mail a ballot to every voter and process them on ballot machines at the Board of Elections, instead of sending those machines out to the precincts.

But most states don’t own machines to process paper ballots, especially to process by-mail voting. So, you’re talking about purchasing thousands of basically Scantron machines and printing tons of paper ballots. And then there’s a need to have valid signatures on file and to have the resources to check every signature for a match to the one on file. In most states matching signatures is done by election officials, sometimes assisted by technology. And usually there are multiple people, and often a representative from each party, checking the signature. It’s just a lot of manpower or technology most states don’t currently have.

But mail-in ballots are very secure. There’s no evidence that there is any more fraud in these by-mail systems than in any other system. Allegations that they’re not secure are not grounded in fact. But part of that security comes with the technology and that’s what a lot of states don’t own.

Q: In recent elections, there’s been allegations of voter fraud. Is there a genuine concern of widespread voter fraud?

Parker: There is certainly a concern about voter fraud, although it is not supported by much empirical evidence of widespread voter fraud. The concern about voter fraud, like most other things about our politics these days, is divided heavily along partisan lines. Republicans are very concerned about voter fraud, while Democrats are far more concerned about voter suppression. Given that the November election is likely to be close, we are sure to see ramped up claims of fraud/suppression this year, particularly in swing states with very close margins. Current levels of partisan polarization make it difficult to change voters’ minds, making the battle over voter turnout crucial to determining the outcome of elections.

Q: What is the good news? Is there any?

Parker: I suppose the good news would be that we have states like Wisconsin to provide us with an early experience of how elections are conducted during a pandemic. This has the benefit of raising these issues months in advance of the presidential election, so we still have time to make the changes we need to ensure that our elections in November are both fair and safe.

Pearson-Merkowitz: Look at Wisconsin. Voters prevailed. They did not let the court suppress their right to express their vote. I would say that’s the good news: Americans are showing that they want to vote. Yes, it’s dangerous. But they were keeping six feet of distance; they were voting by mail more. And hopefully with everything that’s going on, this will motivate people to make sure their voices are heard. Whatever that is, whoever they want to vote for, just be heard.