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Pandemic, Voter Suppression, Record Early Voting – Experts Discuss 2020 Election

Duke scholars unpack an unprecedented election season during media briefing

Part of the The Briefing: Election 2020 and Its Aftermath Series
Pandemic, Voter Suppression, Record Early Voting – Experts Discuss 2020 Election
Student Jessica Sullivan, and professors Sunshine Hillygus, Cecilia Marquez and Megan Mullin

The pandemic, wildfires in the west, a hurricane brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, an avalanche of misinformation and the most contentious presidential race in recent memory are combining to create an unprecedented election season.

Record numbers of Americans are voting early, many of whom are spending hours in line to do so. What does all this mean?

Three Duke faculty members and the leader of a nonpartisan group at Duke dedicated to getting students to the polls took questions from journalists Wednesday during a digital media briefing.

Watch the briefing on YouTube.

Here are excerpts:


Sunshine Hillygus, professor of political science, public policy

“In any election in which we have an incumbent, there are going to be fewer swing voters just because people have had four years to evaluate the incumbent in office.”

“That said, we’re in a two-party system, and in a two-party system, the presidential race is almost always going to be competitive enough for swing voters to make a difference.”

“When we think about the potential for the election to swing one way or the other, we have to keep in mind that information learned during the campaign is able to influence how people vote and is also if they vote at all.”

“That is a critical piece of the puzzle in terms of figuring out what the election result is likely to look like.”

“At the end of the day, usually 90 percent of Democrats vote for the Democratic candidate and 90 percent of Republicans vote for the Republican candidate, and yet the people who are kind of the muddled middle are still enough to make a difference.”



Cecilia Marquez, history professor

“If you asked in December, immigration was the biggest issue on the minds of lots of Latino voters. Now, that has changed and Latino voters look a lot like the rest of voters. The economy, healthcare and COVID are the three most important issues.”

“In April, Hispanic unemployment was something like 18.5 percent, which is higher even than during the great recession. Healthcare, there was a great deal of concern about affordable healthcare, what the alternatives to Obamacare looked like. And with the COVID outbreak, Hispanics are three times more likely to get COVID and five times more likely to be hospitalized.”

“Because Latinos are in many cases essential workers and frontline workers unable to quarantine in the ways we might hope to protect themselves from this virus, the management of COVID is really a central issue. I think there’s a lot of concern about how it’s been handled by this current administration.”



Megan Mullin, environmental politics professor

“Environmental issues are getting more attention during this election but I don’t expect them to be an issue driving turnout at the national level.”

“Americans concern about the environment is on the rise, especially during the Trump administration, and a majority now want to see some sort of federal action on climate change. But those most concerned about the environment and about climate change are either Democratic partisans, who already have a high propensity to vote, or young people, who often don’t vote even though they care about this issue and other political issues.”

 “It’s not a national election. It’s a set of state elections, and some of those state elections could be close. In places like Pennsylvania or Ohio, it’s possible that some of those tipping point voters could be concerned about potential restrictions on fracking, or in Texas, potential restrictions on oil activity. That could drive small numbers of people to vote who might not vote otherwise. So this is the irony of environmental politics; the geographic distribution of policy impacts can drive outcomes towards positions counter to the majority preference.”



Jessica Sullivan, Duke senior, chairperson, Duke Votes

“This has really become a referendum on what we want our future to look like. Our education has been disrupted. The world we’re graduating into is so much different than it was even just a year ago. The economy and really everything else is really driving a lot of young people to vote because we realize this is really important.”

“Young people have previously had really low turnout rates not because they don’t care about voting or because they aren’t politically engaged, but because they just don’t have all the information that they need to vote. We’re a highly mobile population moving very frequently from dorms to off campus to wherever else it may be. It’s hard to keep up with exactly what you need to do when your voting patterns and experiences haven’t been molded over 20, 30, 40 years.”

“There have really been a lot of social media campaigns … directly targeting young people. Not just with these motivational messages but also with exactly what they have to do. Dates, times and locations. Really just telling people not why to cast a vote but actually how to cast a vote.”



Sunshine Hillygus

“There are a number of rules about when, how, who can vote that vary across states and vary across time. These things can create barriers for new and inexperienced voters. There are unprecedented levels of interest and engagement this time around. On the other hand it’s a little bit hard to predict if, at the end of the day, we’ll see as high a turnout as some of the early voting numbers suggest.”

“If students are now at home because their colleges are remote, the voting process and registration process could in fact be easier. On the other hand, if they were a college student when their university shut down and they suddenly moved, it suddenly might have gotten complicated.”

“There have been 300-something lawsuits about the electoral rules governing this election. It certainly creates some confusion about what exactly people need to do to vote.”



Cecilia Marquez

“One of the challenges that COVID poses is that the most effective turnout strategy historically for the Latino community, traditionally, has been door to door. Television ads and digital ads have been less effective. Obviously this has been incredibly restricted in this moment when it’s harder to go door to door.

It is true that both campaigns have done a lot of work to move Latino voters with their digital ads and their television ads. I’ve been sort of shocked by the diversity of Spanish language ads, including different accents depending on what part of the country you’re in.”

“Voting in general is challenge, especially if you’re a monolingual Spanish speaker. I think there’s a lot of language access issues.”



Jessica Sullivan

“I think it has made a huge difference. Our Instagram really has been the biggest channel to reach students. We’ll have people messaging us with questions. And that’s a great way to reach people, where in the past we may have had a more in-person way to reach people. We’re constantly putting out graphics and other things that are informational and specific to Duke students.”

“Looking at social media more broadly, campaigns have been using social media ads more frequently. My friends and I are just getting hounded by these ads all the time. I think it has been recognized as the communications tool it is to reach young people.”



Megan Mullin

“We have models and we have a long history of polling that has changed over time with changes in technology and changes in people’s modes of communication. Polling firms update their procedures in order to really try to capture representative samples of who they think will show up on election day. Doing that is a lot harder during a pandemic. We now don’t have a really good sense of what that electorate is. That’s what polling firms are trying to get, a picture of that electorate.”

“The national polls really do seem to be pretty consistent … which provides some confidence in the results. At the state level they aren’t quite as consistent. Getting those samples right and getting those projections … is hard when you have 300 lawsuits going on about what the election rules are. We don’t know what the electorate will look like not only because of the barriers to participation … but how will a lot of these votes get counted.”



Cecilia Marquez

“It’s happening more in Florida. The most common way this is happening is through WhatsApp, the messaging app. This is an app that Latinos primarily use to be able to communicate. They’re receiving Spanish language media that argues for (conspiracy) theories. They’ll receive YouTube videos that (falsely) suggest Joe Biden is part of a ring of pedophiles led by a cabal of Democrats.”

“Because the Cuban-American population is so much larger there, and the Cubans are among the most conservative Latino populations, that’s part of the reason it’s more prevalent in Florida. It’s mostly around these conspiracy theories.”



Sunshine Hillygus

“I think a lot of people are familiar with how this is going to play out. Given what we are seeing, Democrats are more likely to do early voting, perhaps in part reflecting President Trump’s rhetoric about mail-in and early voting, it really does put Trump and Republicans at risk if they wait until election day.”

“You don’t know, is there going to be a hurricane? Is there going to be a COVID outbreak?”

“In states that have very limited early voting or fewer opportunities or higher burdens to be able to do mail-in voting, this is where there are real concerns about what the implications will be for COVID on turnout.”



Megan Mullin

“We’ve seen just an enormous politicization of the environmental agencies.”

“It’s profound. It has had huge policy consequences. Some of them, we are still trying to understand about how enduring they will be because a lot of them are being challenged in the courts and those court cases are unfolding.”

“Whether that effects turnout, frankly I remain skeptical because the people who are most angered by it are the people who have such a high propensity to vote anyway. The Democratic partisans, the people for whom environmental issues and climate change are really highly salient issues, those are people who are voters anyway.”

“Young voters, this is top of the list. Climate change and environment are huge issues for young people. We’re seeing mobilization of young people on these issues. Whether that translates to a turnout affect I think remains an open question.”



Jessica Sullivan

“A lot of the resistance we get isn’t really that they think voting doesn’t matter, or that they don’t care about the political process. It’s much more that they think the system itself is broken. They think voting really doesn’t change much.”

“That’s been the biggest issue, especially among young people. It’s one where we really don’t have the political and institutional memories that older generations do. We really only know the Obama administration and the Trump administration, two vastly different organizations. People have become very frustrated and not sure where we go from here. There’s a lot of questions raised about the legitimacy of the election and about what happens after Nov. 3. We don’t necessarily have the 2000 election to look back on and say, ‘That’s something we’re familiar with. ’ ”

“There’s a lot of things keeping young people from being fully committed to this process.”



Sunshine Hillygus

“We have to be very cautious in interpreting early voting numbers. We know from the research that a lot of the people voting early tend to be people who would have voted on election day. It’s not expanding the electorate. On the other hand, because we’re in the midst of a pandemic, because there are wildfires and hurricanes, and frankly even just a rainstorm could be the thing that keeps people from the polls. When you look at the pool of people likely to vote on election day, it’s more likely a distraction or barrier might stand in their way.”

“Given the states where we know are most likely to be the tipping points – the fact that Pennsylvania is not going to have their results in – we just have to be cautious about making predictions.”

“Polls are a powerful tool, but they’re a powerful tool when you know the population you’re supposed to be sampling from. And we just don’t know exactly who’s going to show up.”



Megan Mullin

“A lot of what’s enabled the large early voting numbers are these changes in election rules that have happened across the states to open more early voting centers, to allow more early voting, to allow mail-in voting. Many if not most of those changes were temporary changes for this cycle. But we need to have in mind, there is a hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast, there are 100,000 people in California who arte evacuated from their homes, and that’s a consequence of climate-driven natural disasters that are increasing in severity and frequency over time.”

“It’s going to disrupt voting into the future. As we come out of 2020 we should be thinking seriously about how to build this flexibility in voting into our future election processes.”

“Part of our future will be natural events disrupting our elections.”



Cecilia Marquez

“When we look for example at those videos going viral in places like Georgia of the long lines to wait to vote … those are about records amount of turnout, but it’s also about disenfranchisement and creating barriers to be able to access vote. Communities of colors are disproportionately standing in those lines.”

“Black and Latino voters are facing these long lines in different ways that other populations are. Those barriers are not being evenly distributed.”



Jessica Sullivan

“Duke does have an early voting site on campus but we don’t have an election day site on campus, and the two parts of the Duke campus have to go to different election day sites. It’s really important to note where that is happening. Looking at across North Carolina how different universities are pushing out the vote. Many campuses may not have those early voting sites on campus or near campus.”

“Polling places that are a five-minute drive away may be prohibitive.”



Cecilia Marquez

“The Latino vote in Florida is something like 23 percent of Florida’s electorate. It’s a huge population. It’s also a larger Cuban population, it’s a larger Puerto Rican population than we might see in a place like Texas or California. The Cuban electorate specifically is much more conservative.”

“Florida is this place where the Latino vote is changing pretty quickly both with the increase of Puerto Rican voters but also the generational shifts happening among Cuban-American voters. It’s turning increasingly blue.

“It is also true that Latinos are an incredibly complicated and often unreliable voting bloc for Democrats.”

“There is a consistent contingency of Hispanic or Latino Republicans. It’s not entirely clear that they’re going to entirely move us blue or move us purple. The reality is Latinos are often split.”

“A lot of Latinos are white, and a lot of Latinos are Black, and are actually following voting patterns that look a lot like white people and a lot like black people. So understanding the complexities within the Latino community is important to understand how they will or will not fulfill Democratic or Republican fantasies about what this community might do to bolster the electorate. It’s a pretty split and complicated demographic.”



Megan Mullin

“The geographic concentration of these industries in particular states, and the fact that some of those states also are swing states, means we end up paying a lot of attention to these small populations of marginal voters. Some of those are in western Pennsylvania, in Ohio, plausibly in Texas, could end up being important votes. There are communities where a lot of jobs hinge on natural gas and oil. There are real concerns about what an ambitious energy transformation might mean.”

“Those are votes that President Trump would like to think he has locked up. But it’s really interesting to see that’s not so certain this year. Biden seems to have some legs in those communities. He has spent enormous amounts of time in those communities. He’s not just talking to the suburban professional audiences. He’s spending a lot of time talking to folks who work in those industries, and he has union support. He has endorsements from some of the construction/labor organizations that work in the fracking industry.”

“These are not large numbers of votes, but when we have these state elections that are very close, those can be important votes on the margins.”



Sunshine Hillygus

“One of the things we know is these types of voting restrictions can in fact help mobilize people. Yes, they create barriers. But what we have seen in some of the states where they implemented strict voter ID laws, that also became a mobilizing force.”

“When it is viewed that a particular party is trying to prevent a targeted group from voting, that can actually be mobilizing. It’s one of the things that has been top of the mind in African-American communities in places like Georgia and Texas. And it has been in North Carolina.”



Jessica Sullivan

“In a lot of ways … the system is broken. The system isn’t working for everybody. But what we say a lot is that we’re not going to be changing the system in the week, or in the next six days before the election. This is the system we’re working under. But the only way to have a say … is to vote. The rest can happen but this is one way that is important, one way that will affect your community. Scaling it down from this large national conversation to something that is localized, that has been a very effective motivator. Young people do care about their community. Framing voting as this community-oriented act … has been a more effective way.”


Meet the Panelists:

Sunshine Hillygus
Sunshine Hillygus is a professor of political science and public policy who studies American political behavior – including young voters, campaigns and elections, survey methods, public opinion and information technology and politics. 

Cecilia Marquez
Cecilia Marquez is an assistant professor of history at the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke. Marquez researches Latino and Latina history and the U.S. South, and is on the faculty board of the Duke Human Rights Center.

Megan Mullin
Megan Mullin is an associate professor of environmental politics at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke. Mullin studies American political institutions and behavior, focusing on environmental politics.

Jessica Sullivan
Jessica Sullivan is a senior at Duke studying political science and statistics, and the chairperson of Duke Votes, a bipartisan effort to promote voting on campus through registration, education and mobilization.