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Presidential Election: 'Might be a Waterfall We’re Going to Crash Over,' Expert Says

Part of the The Briefing: Election 2020 and Its Aftermath Series
News Tip: Presidential Election -- 'Might be a Waterfall We’re Going to Crash Over,' Expert Says
Sanford School dean Judith Kelley and Rubenstein Fellow Sue Gordon

The upcoming presidential election – during a pandemic, dotted by attempts at interference by foreign entities – presents the nation with a significant test of its collective will and mettle, two Duke election and national security experts said Tuesday.

So buckle up and take a deep breath.

“I kind of feel like that person in the canoe headed towards the waterfall,” said Judith Kelley, dean of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “You’re saying ‘so far so good’ because our norms have held and our rules have been adequate. And yet it feels like there might be a waterfall we’re going to crash over very soon and our norms will be put to an enormous stress test.”

Those tests will come in many forms, but there are also reliable structures in place to make sure the election will be smooth and trustworthy, Kelley and national security expert Sue Gordon said during a briefing for journalists.

Watch the briefing on YouTube.

Here are excerpts:


Sue Gordon, former deputy director of national intelligence who teaches political science and public policy

“It’s a real threat. Starting in 2016 when we saw Russian actions targeting our elections, the intelligence community has considered it significant enough that they have talked about it openly, recognizing you had to get the information into the hands of the people.”

“This being talked about openly by the intelligence community means that it’s serious.”

“We have adversaries that have long intended, in the case of Russia, undermine Democracy, and in the case of China, to be able to use our system to increase their economic power.”

“Now we have a world that is digitally connected, that allows both access to the possibility of interfering in the electoral system and creating havoc on the influence side by using the magnification of social media. So it’s real.”

“Especially since 2016 there has been great effort into securing the election system itself, the voting system. US citizens should feel comfortable that we have, with the private sector, done a lot of things to protect the actual election voting system.”

“But they should be mindful that some of the messages they hear, some of the things that they see, are potentially being manipulated by actors outside the United States. Be a critical consumer.”



Judith Kelley, dean, Sanford School of Public Policy

“This election is not going to be ‘won’ through massive mail-in ballot fraud. That is not how this election will be won.”

“The unprecedented volume is actually not that unprecedented. In the last election, 25 percent of the electorate cast their ballot by mail. Thirty million ballots cast by mail. So it’s not like we haven’t had the volume before that would enable massive fraud. And yet we do not have a history of such massive fraud.”

“When there have been attempts at what’s called ballot harvesting, they have been 1) small and 2) discovered. Case in point being the 9th (U.S. House) District here in North Carolina. The system worked. The cheater, in this case the Republicans, were caught, and the election was re-run.”

“It is true that mail-in ballots are rejected at a much higher rate than in-person ballots. However, mail-in ballots are rejected only at roughly 1 percent rate. And when they’re rejected, they’re not rejected because of fraud. They’re rejected because voters make mistakes with pen and paper and sometimes there is not adequate time to correct those or notify the voter.”

“We’re being set up to believe that if mail-in ballots are taking time to count, that means there’s a problem with them. How long it takes to count mail-in ballots is not a function of their quality. It’s a function of when officials are allowed to start their count.”



Sue Gordon

“Russia … had doctrine, had intention to undermine Democracy. In the Cold War it was called active measures, propaganda measures to make us perceive ourselves in a different way or not believe in ourselves. Their involvement in the elections and their considerable abilities as an intelligence service makes them particularly worrisome.”

“China has a growing participation in terms of trying to shape elections or interfere. They certainly use digital media.”

“But China’s interests are much more about their economic advance – their power. When they conduct actions against the United States, that’s why we so much intellectual property theft and so much work on the tech side. It’s really to seek their own power advantage.”



Sue Gordon

“There’s a piece of me that’s listening to our national discussion, that centers around telling our citizens that either you can’t trust your institutions, or you can’t trust the voting process, or you can’t trust the other guys. If I’m sitting in our adversary’s shoes … they’re sitting back and going, ‘Yes! We have achieved our aim.’ ”

“It actually looks like we’re telling people our system is not trustworthy.”

Judith Kelley

“We have to be very careful not to use fear in this election in general. I don’t think fear is a constructive tactic. But one thing we all ought to be very concerned about is the state of our Democracy itself.”

“Normally if you have somebody who can’t win an election, and they’re strong and confident, what they will do is they will plan to cheat, but then they’ll tell everyone everything is perfect. Everything is under control.  It’ll be free and fair.”

“That’s how you maintain a mandate. You don’t maintain a mandate through an election that isn’t free and fair.”

“In this situation we have the opposite happening, where the president is trying to undermine confidence in the election, which is quite ironic when you think about how we’re at the same time saying we’re the best country in the world. Shouldn’t we have the greatest election system, too?”

“I think it comes down to the fact that this president is not actually trying to win this election. This president is trying to not have to concede this election.”



Judith Kelley

“There will be small efforts at trying to cheat. Because you can’t massively cheat, you will have to be very strategic about putting your thumb on the scale in the right places.”

“You won’t win that way ultimately. We detect these things. Why did we detect the mail harvesting in North Carolina during the last election?”

“When you have instances where foul play is at hand, it will ultimately show up in that something is off here. That may be because of fraud … when there’s a flag that goes up, it will be investigated.”



Judith Kelley

“We’re all concerned about how the period after the election is going to play out. We already have protests in our streets because of Black Lives Matter. Civil unrest in places. Now you have a situation in which you throw in the Supreme Court instability, the president potentially appointing somebody to the court who could decide the outcome … this is a highly volatile situation.”

“I am very concerned about somebody claiming premature victory.”

Sue Gordon

“If I was to talk to my fellow citizens I would say two things. One: vote; and two: be patient. It will take more time to be certain of the results.”



Sue Gordon

“The greatest threat to America right now is that we won’t believe in ourselves.”

“We are not yet to our 300th birthday. This Democracy thing is hard and one of the things that it is predicated on is believing you have the right idea of freedom and justice and transparency. All those things are important. What worries me … if people believe they can’t trust the CDC or the FBI or name your organization. If they think their neighbor is actually, personally against them …  if we start believing we are fundamentally not good … that will erode our confidence and lessen our ability to be that projector of how it can be.”

“Particularly at a time when the world is changing so much. In times of chaos, totalitarianism looks attractive to people who can’t tolerate uncertainty.”

Judith Kelley

“To keep our Democracy alive, it is so important that we don’t malign each other. The polarization we’ve seen is playing right into this. If we start to get into this mindset that whatever party we don’t belong to, that the other party is evil, we are also undermining Democracy. Democracy relies on a robust debate of between different viewpoints. We should be discussing policy issues, not identity issues.”



Judith Kelley

“What it will depend on is how the Republican and Democratic parties each choose to react. How does the leadership choose to react? After the election, the leadership of each party will have a choice, either to stand up and say, ‘We are a Democracy and we believe in the election result and we’re going to back it up because it stops now. The game is over. The election has played out.”

“Or they can say, ‘Well, maybe we can get away with it, and we can push, and we can make a mess, and maybe we can stay in power for another four years. Maybe we can capture power for the next four years.’ ”

“That would be such a short-sighted gain and such a long-term loss for our country.”



Sue Gordon

“Quit forwarding, amplifying messages that you don’t understand where they came from. When you watch the news, be really mindful of things that either don’t make sense, do not comport with your experience, or are trying to tell you what to believe. Look into the event, do your own research.”

“It would be lovely if we’d stop being sheeple and started doing some critical thinking about the information we’re receiving.”



Judith Kelley

“Give some credence and pay some attention to international election monitoring. We have been encouraging other countries to do that for some time.”



Judith Kelley

“We are at a stage of the pandemic in the United States where we are much better informed about how to set up safe polling stations. We know how to implement a safe voting experience. The concern is more with getting enough people to sign up to work in those polling stations. We don’t want that to decrease the number of stations we can muster because that has an effect on how far people have to travel.”

“We have to provide safe transportation to polling stations. But those are logistical questions. If we can put a man on the moon, we can figure out how to get a voter to the poll.”



Sue Gordon

“This is where thought starts. I think it is the best opportunity to present the broadest view of what is happening in context.”

“I think it is important to talk about current events in historical contexts. It’s important to talk about US activities in global contexts. To be able to see clearly the good and the challenges.”


Faculty Participants

Susan Gordon
Susan Gordon is a former U.S. principal deputy director of national intelligence. She now teaches courses at Duke University on political science and public policy, including national security and leadership in the public sphere.

Judith Kelley
Judith Kelley is dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, where she is also a senior fellow with the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Her areas of research include human rights, democracy and international election observation.


Duke experts on a variety of topics related to politics and public policy can be found here.