PACS news/November 5, 2020

Democracy in Action

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

As a community of scholars, we are tempted to begin examining the 2020 election even as the electoral map is still in flux. Some results are clear, but before either President Trump or Vice President Biden reach the magical number of 270 in the Electoral College, it is premature to look backward in analyzing the election or to look forward to the next administration. We need to let election officials do their jobs, and count all legally cast ballots before declaring anyone a victor.

For the coming days, and perhaps weeks, our job is to embrace the uncertainty of this moment, to uphold the rule of law, and to provide an opportunity for thoughtful reflection.  

During our Election Debrief event this week, Nate Persily, co-director of the Stanford PACS Program on Democracy and the Internet, guided participants through a fascinating discussion of the extraordinary challenges that we have overcome in holding an election during a pandemic. He also seeded discussion of opportunities for much needed improvements to our electoral infrastructure that have come to light through the process.

“Over the last six months we saw a complete revolution in the way we run elections in this country,” he shared. “An incredible amount of work went into transitioning to absentee ballot systems in key states, and we saw remarkably little in the way of significant lines on election day itself.”

“We saw historic turnout with over 100 million votes cast early—higher turnout than we’ve seen in 100 years,” he shared. “This election represents a remarkable achievement from the standpoint of election administration.”

Moreover, despite widespread concerns about potential intimidation, or even violence, at poll stations on election day, we saw none of it. We will do well to maintain this perspective in the coming days as we see a picking apart of those processes by adversarial interests.

The current results do tell us one thing, however. There is a growing divide between the results of the popular vote and the results of the Electoral College. Twice in the past twenty years, the popular vote winner was the Electoral College loser. If President Trump were to find a way to 270, it would mark the third such occasion this century. The gap in the popular vote between Biden and Trump is bigger this year than that between Hillary Clinton and Trump in 2016.

The composition of the U.S. Senate also reflects a related trend. Each state gets two Senators. And so each state is equally weighted in representation despite massive differences in total population. California, for instance, has nearly 40 million citizens, more than 12% of the U.S. population. Wyoming has 575,000, or 0.17% of the population. And yet the two are represented equally in the Senate.

The result is that structural features of our democratic system are producing minority rule. Our Constitutional framers worried about the tyranny of the majority. At this point in time in U.S. democracy, we might worry more about a tyranny of the minority.

Our final reflection must include a broader view of democracy itself. As we can see here in the U.S., but also in countries all over the world, democracy is vulnerable to populist demagogues. Our role in reflecting on this electoral process and those in the future requires that we take a long view of history and politics, and not just in the U.S. We need to do more than assume that democracies are obviously superior to all other forms of political organization. We need both to offer the arguments for democracy, and we need to be able to point to the actual operation of democracies and the benefits they deliver. American democracy can’t stand as a beacon for the world in its current highly polarized and divided state. It must heal and revitalize.

Regardless of the result of the 2020 election in the United States of America, tackling challenges the U.S. faces will take years of coordinated and thoughtful effort. The election outcome confirms what social scientists knew for a long time: the country’s deep divisions will make cooperation across party lines very difficult.

“The upside of conducting the elections during a global pandemic is that it opened new solutions for logistical and legal challenges,” shared Nate Persily. “These are solvable problems, and you can see that by the fact that many other states were able to address them.” Our democracy has always been a work in progress and our growth through changing eras has always made us stronger. Civil society has been at the heart of this work, and Stanford PACS is committed to breaking new ground in research, supporting policy reforms, and informing the essential work of civil society leaders everywhere.

We look forward to walking this journey with you into the inquiry and investigation of our democracy in action. We will continue to highlight the work of our scholars in these important areas and make sure you have the information you may need to help your decision making, grounded in the academic rigor of our work. In the meantime, we’ll be glued to the news and refreshing the electoral map right alongside all of you.

In solidarity,

Rob Reich
Marc and Laura Andreessen Faculty Codirector
Stanford PACS