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If Election Day Gets Strange, Here's How to Understand Why

Part of the The Briefing: Election 2020 and Its Aftermath Series
Election memorabilia from the Rubenstein Special Collections Library
Election memorabilia from the Hubbard Collection in the Rubenstein Special Collections Library.

The Election Day “what ifs” are piling up: What if enough state results get tied up in the courts to prevent a clear winner? What if Congress gets involved? What if a losing candidate refuses to accept the results?

There are answers to these and other scenarios, and they can be found on a new resources page of the Duke Votes website. The website was created by students and faculty at Polis: Center for Politics at the Sanford School to provide a one-stop website for essential information about voting and the 2020 election.

Since 1800, when John Adams accepted defeat to Thomas Jefferson, the United States has had a remarkable history of a smooth transition of power, albeit with some noticeable bumps, including in that same 1800 election.  Understanding that history and constitutional precedent should provide some comfort to voters, said Mac McCorkle, co-director of Polis, who helped organize the resources page.

“We wanted to give people in the Duke community a wide menu of sources that they can review before or after Election Day to help them understand what may be happening -- or not happening -- in the presidential election process this year amidst all the political controversy this year,” McCorkle said.

The information collected by McCorkle and students is part history lesson, part legal commentary and part tutorial on the election process and the U.S. constitution. In it, you can learn the history of the official telephone concession call, which is not an old tradition but dates only back to 1980 when Jimmy Carter thought it was proper etiquette to call Ronald Reagan in person to offer best wishes.

There is historical material about past electoral battles, including the 1876 election, which involved voting intimidation of black voters and possible electoral fraud on both sides, and ended up being decided by Congress and a compromise in which Rutherford Hayes won the presidency with a pledge to withdraw US army troops from the South.

There’s also plenty of material on the 2020 election, including a dive into how different “swing” states count ballots differently, and why this might delay a final result for one or more days. And if the delays end up in court, there’s a valuable collection of explainers listing on what grounds these cases are likely to be fought.

The material includes writing from across the ideological spectrum, ranging from The New York Times to the National Review. But the majority of the content comes from archival or academic sources. One section includes a list of writings from Duke experts.