Auburn professor expects high voter turnout, presidential debates to be must-see TV this fall

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With the U.S. Presidential race looming on the horizon amid a lingering COVID-19 pandemic, this year's election will be like no other from any time in history. According to Auburn Political Science Assistant Professor Soren Jordan, not even changes to the conventions will quell public interest in voting—both in person and via mail—and the debates should be must-see viewing for a nation hungry for content and competition. He discussed the upcoming election and what it might mean for the future of elections in the United States below.

With the Republican National Convention moving from Florida to Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Democratic National Convention taking place almost entirely virtually, how will this year's election be different for candidates and voters alike?

With decreasing coverage of the national conventions and the two nominees well sewn up, the conventions moving or having a drastically reduced physical presence is unlikely to be noticed by most voters. Viewership of the conventions has been almost non-existent among undecided voters for quite some time, especially since the conventions themselves haven't been contested grounds for nominations for quite some time. The DNC getting former presidential candidate John Kasich as a speaker is interesting, as is the hard, sub-month deadline for Biden to decide on a VP nominee before the convention. But the programming of both conventions is likely to go largely unwatched and mostly uncovered, especially since Trump has scaled back expectations for an in-person large event (which would have been lambasted in media coverage).

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed how the candidates reach potential voters and communicate their messages to the nation as a whole?

This is much more interesting. I've noticed much more emphasis on electronic contact, but this is likely to pick up as the election nears. Door-to-door campaigning seems like it will be poorly received this year, given that the census (which is required) only recently allowed for household-level in-person interviews after suspending them in March. Voter registration efforts are plowing ahead, but these occur each cycle and are not the same as actually increasing turnout. 

What do you think these turns of events will mean for voter turnout and excitement around the candidates? What might this also mean for further campaign events and possibly even debates?

On the turnout front, things are about to explode. Election administration officials are reporting huge increases in requests to vote by mail. My colleague, Kathleen Hale, was actually interviewed by NPR and said that the increases can be of a factor of 10 or more, which is enormous. Of course, not all states allow for vote-by-mail, and some, like Alabama, don't even have early voting, outside of absentee. So, I think you're going to see huge frustrations from people who live in Election Day-only jurisdictions, like Alabama, who see stories of vote-by-mail states—like Oregon and Colorado—and wonder why they aren't given the same convenience as other states and potentially demand changes to voting in their own state. This is highly unlikely to be resolved by the 2020 election cycle since we're already in the swing of finding polling places, preparing registrations and designing ballots. But these conversations will pick up and hopefully make us think about what we want voting to look like in the future. Especially since the Census is happening in 2020, leading to new Congressional districts in 2022—which means drawing new election maps—there will likely be a huge national and state-level conversation about the future of voting.

But given the reality of 2020, you're likely to see record high numbers of absentee voting and provisional ballots—when votes that don't conform to normal procedure, often for reasons of eligibility, are set aside to be counted under different circumstances. You're also likely to see numerous cases of people who didn't vote in person due to fear of the coronavirus, depending on the national stage of the pandemic in November. These factors will generate a ton of debate about the "validity" of the election results. That debate could get ugly, and fast, per this report on game-planning around a contested election. 

But I think a shining star will be the debates. Personally, I believe you will see record high national attention to the debates. People are starved for new media content, and I also think that people are a little starved to watch some competition. For instance, Major League Baseball's opening Nationals/Yankees game hit record viewership, and a debate brings both of those things. Add to it that record numbers of people are becoming registered and attentive, like in Texas, for instance, and the election is constantly billed from both sides as an "election for the future of the country."  So, people will watch the debates in record numbers, even if just for the sport of the political competition of it all—and people love turning politics into competition, especially those who are really committed to one side.

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