Auburn political science professor discusses votes, procedures, possibilities surrounding razor-thin presidential election

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With the 2020 U.S. presidential election coming down to a razor-thin margin and votes still being counted in some key states, Auburn University Political Science Professor Mitchell Brown—co-director of the Election Administration Initiative—gives her thoughts on this week’s developments, how the uncertain outcome may play out and what procedures and policies may ultimately determine the winner. Brown is an expert on election administration (general and changes in process), counting and certification, audits and recounts, mail ballots and election security.

With a handful of states still counting votes and razor-thin margins for both candidates, how much of a possibility will recounts be, and what does that process look like? Are there automatic recounts triggered based on the percentages not being met, or do the candidates have to request a recount?

Calls for recounts are likely in the 2020 presidential election. Recounts may be automatic or requested by candidates, and depending upon state law, the state may pay for them or the candidates may have to pay for them. They are administrative procedures and are done to ensure counting was done accurately, or in some cases if statutorily defined triggers are set when an election result is very close.

During the 2016 presidential election, the Green Party sought recounts in several states with different results—Pennsylvania chose not to conduct a recount, Michigan started, but did not complete a recount, and Wisconsin completed its recount and found an additional 100-plus votes for Trump. In 2018, there were recounts in Florida for a U.S. Senate seat, though two counties did not finish their recounts before the deadline, so the votes from those counties were not included in the final tally.

Recounts should be expected in states with very tight margins, where a candidate wants to contest procedures, or where these triggers are set. In this election, we do not yet know the margins for the states that have not yet been called, as not all of the ballots have been counted thus far, so it is impossible to know as I answer this question whether automatic recounts will be triggered or not.

Since the race is so close, what is the likelihood of the election results being contested, and if/when would the Supreme Court become involved to decide things?

Contests to election results in close states are very likely and will happen quickly before any of these states reach their certification deadlines. Usually, this is initiated by the losing party, but depending upon state law, it could be by another party with standing. The courts will look for an issue in election procedures that is significant enough to change results. This is particularly true if there are substantive differences in procedures used at the jurisdiction level within a particular state and which support an argument that certain ballots should not be counted. This exact issue led in part to the contest in the 2000 election, and in the subsequent decision in Bush v Gore, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount as a violation of the equal protection clause.

The argument that we should expect to hear from the President’s lawyers is that the expanded absentee and vote-by-mail options in some states are improper or illegal and ballots submitted in those ways should not be counted. To be clear, the legality of these rules and subsequent processes are up to the states, not the President. The job of the courts will be to determine if the rules were properly made and appropriately implemented.

In the 2000 election, we did not know the results for weeks and weeks. Do you think that scenario could play out again this year?

In 2000, there were contested results, recounts and court cases that took weeks to conclude. If there is not a definitive winner shortly (and I doubt there will be), we will have similar delays. And it has been clear for weeks (if not months) that the candidates have been preparing to file cases in part to delay a final result in naming the elected president. In the meantime, the public should trust the institutions that support our democracy and be patient with these processes.

What do you think this year’s election will mean going forward for the future of elections?

This election should mark a turning point about parts of the future of American elections. We now have balloting (or election) periods, not a specific election day, and we should expect vote-by-mail and early voting options to continue to expand. There have been many calls for reform, and while a federal election system is highly unlikely, the costs of elections will only continue to rise as different approaches to ensuring greater convenience and voter choice ballots expand, which means states or federal governments will need to provide more funding to support election functions. Election security will now be a constant concern, but the 2020 election should be seen as a success story. This election also marks a critical point in the tone and rhetoric that politicians use in running for office.

Can you put this year’s voter turnout in perspective? Reports are that it has been record-setting in many ways, including the number mail-in ballots and early voting, so can you give your thoughts on the way Americans have responded to encouragement to get involved?

Election officials expected large turnout in this election starting last year and began planning with that in mind. The challenge they faced wasn’t in dealing with large turnout, but rather in adapting procedures because of the pandemic. States did this differently, with many expanding absentee voting or vote-by-mail options and those with in-person voting also instituting new processes and buying equipment to ensure that poll workers and voters were better protected. Simultaneously, both parties and related advocacy groups engaged in new and expanded approaches to GOTV (get-out-the-vote). And the media devoted unprecedented attention to reporting on election rules and procedures—some of this fueled by fears of election interference from foreign adversaries, some in reaction to inflammatory statements by the president, some because of the new role of private money in supporting election administration and media coverage of it, and some because of the pandemic. What we should all hope for is that this new awareness and interest in voting continues with ongoing high turnout.

About Mitchell Brown
Professor Mitchell Brown serves as co-director of the Election Administration Initiative and teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in research design, quantitative methodology, field research, race and politics, and American government. Her research specializes in the challenges facing marginalized communities and the nature and effectiveness of tools for building community capacity.

Brown is the editor of the Science of Teaching and Learning section of the Journal of Political Science Education and is a regular contributor to the Election Center professional development courses. Brown earned her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland at College Park.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.