"Can Voting and Democracy Survive the Internet?" Transcript
Guest: Nate Persily
Betty Teng: Welcome to Mind of State, a podcast for both political junkies and armchair shrinks. I’m psychoanalyst and trauma therapist Betty Teng.
Jonathan Kopp: And I’m communication strategist and political hack, Jonathan Kopp. Join us as we welcome experts in politics and psychology to consider this: the state of our nation through the state of our minds and the mind of our state. Hi, Betty.
Betty: Hi, Jonathan. So this week we’re going to talk about voting on Mind of State. We’re going to the state side of things. So tell me why talk about voting.
Jonathan: Look, from my perspective, voting is the foundation of our democracy. It’s the foundation of civic participation. We’ve got Election Day coming up, but the fact is, we are here in voting season right now. It is Election Day every day because people are actually lining up and voting.
Betty: Yeah, my side of things, it’s causing a heck of a lot of anxiety and people are worried about the safety of voting healthwise. They’re worried about the safety of voting in terms of conflict and strife at polls. They’re worried about the accuracy of results.
Jonathan: You know what? They better be stressed. They better be anxious because voting matters. I think we’ve seen there are outcomes and consequences that are real.
Betty: I think also one piece of this is how technology continues to push not only voting, but campaigns. And what better way to discuss this topic but with an expert on not only voting, not only democracy, but on technology and its impacts on both. So it is my pleasure to welcome Nate Persily to Mind of State. Nate is a recognized expert on election law and redistricting. He’s a professor at Stanford Law School. In his latest book, Social Media and Democracy, he examines the impact of changing technology on democracy. Currently he’s focused on the medical health aspects of voting during this pandemic through his aptly named project HealthyVoting.org. Welcome to Mind of State, Nate.
Nate Persily: Thanks for having me.
Jonathan: It’s terrific to have you here, Nate. I can’t think of a more pressing topic at a more poignant moment. And I want to start off the conversation by really speaking right to this moment. Your your work focuses on the Internet’s impact on democracy. And so we’re hoping that you’re going to help ground us in some of the realities that we’re dealing with, social media, democracy, the health of voting so that we can process this moment uh a little bit more clearly and rationally.
Betty: You know, and something to add to that is to ground us in some terms, because some of us non-technical folks see social media as a bunch of different things. What do you define as social media specifically?
Nate: Well, I think uh when we think of social media, we’re we’re thinking about peer to peer uh connection of of information, right, mediated by some kind of algorithm. Sometimes that algorithm can be very thin, say, you know, text messaging through WhatsApp and the like is is a form of social media. Sometimes it’s much thicker uh with Facebook’s algorithms or or Twitter’s and the like. But the key feature that makes media social is that it’s from others to you. And it’s not uh sort of being delivered and curated in the same way that it was when we’re talking about TV and the like.
Jonathan: So you’re really focused on the social space within the broader digital space. And and it’s safe to say mostly the major platforms, Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Tiktok and Instagram and so forth or more longtail.
Nate: Well, I think uh what you left off one, which is YouTube, which is actually an important sort of social media force you know uh Facebook is, is first among equals here in terms of its impact on you know people’s conversations and the like. And when I say Facebook, I include Instagram and WhatsApp because the suite of products is in under one roof. But, you know, each platform is different. Each product is different. And so when we talk about whether the beneficent or pernicious effects of social media, we have to be pretty specific about the platform we’re talking about. And the affordances of that platform. What is it about the way people interact on that platform that then has either you know consequences for their psychology or for um democracy generally?
Jonathan: And just one other question on the on the specifics here. There’s our peer to peer engagement across social. But of course, so much concern right now about advertising, about the paid presence and paid content in social. Where’s your work focused? Is it both?
Nate: It is both. I actually started getting interested in the effect of technology and democracy because of political advertising, as as Betty mentioned at the beginning. You know, most of my work before seven or eight years ago was at you know looking at the nuts and bolts of elections, whether it’s political parties, redistricting, voting rights, election administration the like. Um but it became clear about seven or eight years ago that the transition to the Internet was going to fundamentally alter not just political conversation, but paid media. And then how we should think about paid political advertising. And this was at the same time that we were dealing with, you know, the famous case of Citizens United, which upheld corporations’ rights to run you know advertisements. But very few people realize that that case was about an On-Demand movie, right, It wasn’t actually about a political advertisement. And that’s relevant because it sort of set the stage for a lot of these questions about, well, is it a difference if people can download things as opposed to having them thrust in their face in a 30 second television ad? And so uh I think the sort of technological questions that were implied by Citizens United were sort of under appreciated. But they but they did hint toward what we were going to see in the Internet age. And now, you know, seven years later, we’re dealing with, you know, billions of dollars that are being spent on targeted political advertising. And it’s it’s quickly gonna replace television as the made mode of political communication.
Betty: I have a question about that, Nate, because uh you know I heard the psychology of the technology’s impact on us. And this paid advertisement and how it impacts us. From your research and from your assessments how are we being impacted by these paid advertisements, by by social media if it is peer to peer, we’re just interacting with each other, and yet there is these corporate impacts inclusive of international corporate or international bodies getting into our our platforms. So how is this stirring us psychologically? How are we being impacted or influenced?
Nate: Well, I don’t think we know yet the impact of of, say, advertising, online advertising, in particular on people’s, you know, whether it’s levels of anxiety or other psychological phenomena. But um let let me just talk about some stuff that we do know is let let’s take the Russian ads that were purchased in the 2016 election, right. We know that about 80 percent of those ads were targeting on issues of social division, right. So they were trying to inflame division, inflame passions on issues of race, issues of religion, gun rights, immigration, and the like. And so there was there’s very little subtlety in in those ads. Now, I think that the the influence of Russian ads, per se, has been uh blown out of proportion. I mean, they spent roughly a hundred thousand dollars on Facebook ads and during that period. And look, if you could swing a presidential election with just one hundred thousand dollars worth of paid ads, you know, a lot of political consultants have been doing some stupid things for some time. But but having said that, right, you know when you spend a hundred thousand dollars on ads, it multiplies because of the social nature of the platform. It doesn’t just end with the advertisement that’s received by the viewer, right. It can get forwarded. It can then metastasize around the Internet that which is why millions of people, tens of millions of people ended up seeing those ads. But on on the basic question of like what makes social media different in terms of sort of political anxiety, I would put it this way, which is that the social part of social media privileges virality, right. So so the kind of communications and strategies and candidacies that are more likely to be forwarded right like to to different people are the ones that then get privileged in that atmosphere. And we do know that the kinds of communication that appeal to outrage and appeal to emotion generally are the ones that are more likely to be forwarded through social media. And so whether it’s advertising or organic content, if you tried to evoke emotion, right, particularly strong emotions, it’s going to be privileged. That is exacerbated by the algorithms themselves where where they continue to feed you things that you’ve engaged with before, right. So if you find something, you know, quote, engaging, right, then the algorithm is going to try to give you similar content in the future in order to keep you on the platform.
Betty: What you said about the virality of social media as a way that things metastasize reminds me of something that you wrote back in 2017. What the Internet uniquely privileges above all else is a type campaign message that appeals to outrage or otherwise grabs attention. The politics of never ending spectacles cannot be healthy for democracy, nor can a porousness to outside influences that undercuts the sovereignty of a nation’s elections. Democracy depends on the ability and the will of voters to base their political judgments on facts. So this virality and the spectacle. Nate, can you talk to us about how our own attention is almost betraying us. In a neuroscience fashion, we’re drawn towards what is scary or fear driven or even angering. We will go towards that in an evolutionary brain way so are our brains being hacked and is that affecting the democracy of the United States?
Nate: Well, if you think that democratic deliberation requires some kind of rational discussion and evaluation of costs and benefits in the kind of, I won’t say nonpartisan way, that’s not the right way to think it. But in a kind of rational way as opposed to an overly emotional way. Right now, emotions have always been part of democracy and politics. I’m not trying to sort of undersell that. The question is whether we’re processing information in a way where we depend on the facts, right, and we can evaluate the facts. Now, if uh instead, because of what we’re seeing on our screens and because um of the the way candidates and strategies are adapting to that environment is really the same way they would deal with entertainment, right, or fiction, right. Well, that that is not healthy for democratic deliberation and decision making. And so the blurring of news and entertainment that necessarily happens online because the intermediaries are taken away. Uh the fact that we have stripped the information environment of the social cues that we have in the in the offline world, right. So, for example, if you go to a supermarket checkout counter and you see a newspaper that says Hillary Clinton involved in pizza related pedophile scandal, right. You can you can evaluate, you know what kinds of newspapers are there as you go to the checkout counter. These are tabloids. You don’t take them seriously. They’re gonna have stories about aliens and the like. When these stories come at you on your Facebook feed stripped of all the other kind of identifying information, right, you then are just relying on it, just like you would any other kind of communication, because they come at you in the same context as your your nephew’s graduation video. You know, a a tabloid story about Beyonce, um a Paul Krugman op-ed or a Breitbart story right. They’re all packaged essentially the same way, whether it’s in search results on Google or Twitter’s newsfeed or Facebook’s newsfeed, right. And so um you just lose some of the the sort of credibility cues that we have in the offline world when they get repackaged in the online world.
Jonathan: So are are you arguing that social media has hurt democracy? The original promise, of course, of the Internet was to be the great equalizer, right. We were going to be in this massive, ongoing town hall conversation that was nonhierarchical and everyone had a say. But have we gone wrong?
Nate: Well, I mean, I think what you’re hitting on is, is that the most democratic features of the Internet and social media pose real challenges to democracy, right. And so it is the leveling effect, the removal of intermediaries, the fact that we don’t have guardrails on political conversation, which is both the great virtue of the Internet and and also its greatest challenge when it comes to politics. Now, just because we have these downsides to social media doesn’t mean that the upsides still aren’t there. And the way we’re thinking about it in this discussion is very US focused, right. But if you’re living in an authoritarian regime, right, where where you have top down control of the information environment, clearly, you know, having social media is a way of liberating, you know, information transfer from the the authoritarian intermediaries. You know, even into democratic environments, right, it wasn’t that long ago that we had four white males who were controlling the evening news and then deciding what would be truth, right, and that definitely excluded, you know, large swaths of the population from from being seen and heard by their peers. And so it ends up being a mixed bag, right, and so we need to understand the downsides and try to amplify uh the upsides so neither the utopians of the Internet age were correct, nor were those who were preaching the Apocalypse Now. These are tools that you need to harness to make sure that they have sort of pro-democratic ends.
Jonathan: So then how would you say, if we do take a global view, I mean, how do we stack up? You know, we think of the American democracy as the the leader. Are we a healthier democracy or less healthy than other democracies around the world?
Nate: Well, we are unhealthy uh but social media is just a small part of that right now. I mean, you need only look at at people’s faith in the democracy in the United States and how it’s declined over the last, you know, five plus years. And, uh you know, that’s these are worrying signs, let alone the fact that that we have had on two occasions in the last 20 years and perhaps soon more, political leaders who get the minority of the vote but end up ruling, right. So if you have a basic baseline of majority rule, we are not satisfying that. Uh also, there are other countries and electoral systems that are better capable of managing division, right. And so while our our polarization is sort of being channeled into the two party system here, which is not healthy because it creates a kind of dichotomous us versus them, whereas in more pluralized electoral systems, you can have a greater diversity of parties, coalition building, horse trading, uh which our political system doesn’t allow.
Betty: In terms of that health of democracy and the fact that we, over the last, I think, 20 years uh have seen only 50 percent of people, if that, vote in the most popular elections like the presidential elections. What is voter disenfranchisement? Tell us about people’s faith in voting and and how is that going to play out this year in terms of how we’re approaching November 3rd?
Nate: Well, I think you’re going to see very high rates of turnout in this election, despite all the incredible obstacles, both sort of intentional and partisan or unintentional and pandemic related that are being placed in their way. Um and so I think we had a bit of a a drop in 2016, but now people are pretty energized. And, you know, voter turnout has waxed and waned over the last 20 years. So the Obama elections, the first one in particular, saw a surge in turnout. There are lots of reasons for our comparatively low turnout as compared to the rest of the world. A lot of it has to do with the fact that we require people to re-register every time they move their address and one out of four Americans moves every two years. And so that that aspect of our electoral system is one that depresses turnout. The same is true with districted elections as opposed to proportional representation elections and probably even the presidential system depresses it. Uh but, you know, we also have more elections than almost any other country in the world. Maybe Switzerland’s the only one that competes with us on that. So there is a bit of of fatigue sometimes when it comes to uh voting. But, you know, I think that this year we’re going to see certainly 60 percent of eligible voters will turn out. It may be more than that.
Jonathan: So your prediction of 60 percent voter turnout sounds like a more optimistic expectation than I’m hearing in other places. What do you know that we don’t?
Nate: Well, it really depends on 60 percent of what, right. Is it 60 percent of the voting age population, the eligible voting population, or registered voters? Right, we’ll certainly have at least 60 percent of registered voters are are going to end up turning out. We will have, as you know, so the historic statistics suggest only about half of the voting age population is going to turn out, but a lot of that includes people who are not eligible to vote, uh non-citizens, people who are in prison, and the like. And so I think it will still be high turnout as compared to 2016, but it’s still a shame that, you know, more than a third and maybe 40 percent of those who could vote don’t turn out.
Betty: What’s motivating us? Is it is it the pandemic? Is it Black Lives Matter movement? Is it all of these multiple crises seeking change? Are we really looking for a change election, as Jonathan often quotes, that elections are about either change or stay the same. So what are you seeing as the bump in that turnout?
Nate: There are sort of push and pull reasons for for turnout. I mean, one of them is that people either love or hate Donald Trump. And so that ends up leading to, you know, emotional voting. Also, the the political parties, you know, people are energized and well-funded to get the vote out. And so I think that, you know, when the parties are even more motivated to get people out to vote. But, you know, you’re going to see more of those efforts in the battleground states, not necessarily overall. And so, for example, we don’t really know what the pandemic’s voter turnout effects are going to be for those who are traditionally going to vote in person, right. Now they’re going to be people who are going to not vote because of risk to health. And, of course, there’s a lot of controversy over the basic mechanics of voting, whether you’re talking about post office and and absentee ballots or uh polling places and poll workers. And so we you know that is a bit of a curve ball that we can’t predict. You know, Democrats are not, like, extremely enthusiastic about Joe Biden, but they are generally motivated to vote against Donald Trump. And so the question is, does that emotion translate into a greater motivation to vote?
Jonathan: Well, I guess the question in in my mind is where does that motivation or lack of motivation rub up against the the various forms of voter suppression and disenfranchisement? You talked about the mechanics, the sort of the structural and the de jure reasons why it’s difficult for people to vote. But at the same time, you’re expecting a higher than average turnout. The piece that that I think is the wild card in this election are the indirect measures of disenfranchisement, the constant messaging about the lack of faith in our voting system. And so I’m wondering how those messages are going to play into uh the question of voter turnout.
Nate: That’s a very good question and we really don’t know the answer. I mean, I think that um people are alienated, right. You have roughly half of the electorate says that they would not trust the outcome or that they’re worried that the election will be rigged. Most of those are Democrats, but a sizable number of Republicans as well believe that. And and it doesn’t help that the president is is raising that you know spectre and his Twitter feed. But it’s not clear that we have kind of reached the levels that you see, say, in developing countries, developing democracies, where it almost leads to an election boycott of sorts, where people say, oh, well, my vote’s not gonna make a difference so therefore I’m not going to turn out. A lot of the people who are most alienated are also, strangely enough, the most motivated, right, because they they are they are angry at the system and they are still willing to to try to vote. But it but it really you know, the jury is out on this. We don’t know what voter turnout is going to look like this term. My prediction is that it’s going to be quite high. Um a lot of that is because of how engaged the groups are that that work on this.
Betty: And there’s space now. There’s still time. How do we encourage those folks to come out if they’re apathetic or is are they sort of lost to the voting cause?
Nate: No, I think that that, you know, voter registration efforts begin the first week in September because there’s a lot of people who’ve not been paying attention to this election uh and they start paying attention, as surprising as it might be to us, after Labor Day. And so, you know, there there are all these NGOs that are working right now to register more voters. And, uh you know, there will be millions of people who will register in September and October who will end up voting. And we need to make sure that as many people get contacted as possible.
Jonathan: Nate, do you think that the closeness of American elections, that some 70 thousand votes made the difference in 2016 and the fact that uh the the winner of the popular vote twice in recent memory has not won the election? Does that energize people or does it turn them away?
Nate: Well, I don’t think it has a big effect on voter turnout. Um it definitely you know feeds into feelings of illegitimacy of the election and that that’s a long term concern of mine. Uh and so if we continue to have minority winners of the popular vote uh end up winning the Electoral College and being president, that I think poses a you know threat to the regime in some respects, but that’s derived from the lack of confidence that people have in the electoral system in general, right. And it’s I uh you know, democracy is not healthy if the majority of the people don’t trust the outcome. And we are hurtling toward that eventuality.
Jonathan: But that’s a structural problem, right? I mean, those in power don’t give up power uh without it being taken from them. And if our constitutional process requires those in power to change the rules, how do we fix this problem?
Nate: The Electoral College is a very hard nut to crack, right. And so uh there are workarounds that people are trying to enact into state law, something called the National Popular Vote Compact, which would lead states with large populations to commit to sending their electors uh based on the national popular vote as opposed to what happens in their states. But that that is, for the most part, an academic enterprise these days. And you know it’s going to require a massive change in sort of a real landslide election that would change composition of the Senate, the House, and state legislatures to then effectuate that kind of constitutional change.
Jonathan: And so where does technology fit in that question? Right, I mean, that’s your expertise, technology and voting and the Internet and voting. I think we initially thought that technology would improve our voting process, right. If we can bank by ATM., we should be able to vote from our mobile phones. Now, it seems that we’re rejecting technology. We want a paper trail. Uh we don’t trust, you know, the Internet with our voting. So where do you think we are in terms of that that nexus of technology and voting?
Nate: We are not going to vote over the Internet anytime soon. Um you need sort of robust confidence in the process in order to make that kind of move, which, you know, very few countries have. Estonia is one of them that’s moved in that direction. Um you may see some of the Internet voting on the sort of low information local races, maybe some primary elections and the like. But you need only look at the debacle with the so-called Iowa caucus app. If you remember this from the Democratic caucuses, that, you know, even if something as simple as transferring information from the local caucus to the state database is that complicated, people are not going to be so trusting with their votes. Now, you you raise some other issues about technology and voting like the voting machines themselves, right. And so for the most part, as you say, in the last decade, we’ve now moved away from electronic voting machines, which were all the rage after the 2000 election debacle, where we replaced punch card ballots with more uh sort of automated systems. But that’s led to sort of worries about the lack of a paper trail, lack of auditability and the like and so almost all jurisdictions have now moved to some kind of auditable paper trail. Um I served on the National Academy of Sciences panel dealing with the future of of voting. And I could say, you know, one of the things that we recommended was to make sure that there’s auditability, that you have sort of a top to bottom check after every election to make sure that the systems are working as intended. One thing that I think both in 2016 and as in the run up to 2020 that we’ve now recognized, is that focusing just on the machines themselves, on the voting machines is um too myopic. And that’s because there’s a lot of technology in the process from the voter registration system to the electronic poll books to the election night reporting systems. And so if you worry about cybersecurity and the security of these systems, you have to worry about not just the act of voting, but all those other links in the chain. And those are ones that particularly now that these jurisdictions in in confronting the pandemic are buying all kinds of new technology, those are the things that worry me a little bit.
Jonathan: Speaking of what’s worrying you, what Election Day scenario keeps you up at night? What’s going to happen on November 3rd?
Nate: Well, first of all, the election has already begun, and that’s because ballots are out. North Carolina mailed them out you know in the first week of September. So we should expect roughly half the votes to be cast even before November 3rd. So the thing that keeps me up at night are the worst case scenarios, which I want to emphasize are are they’re still low probability events, right, but but they’re a higher probability now than they’ve ever been. And so issues of Election Day violence are the things that keep me up at night because we have a greater risk of that happening now than we have had historically. Um as well as how with the relationship between the federal government and the states and local polling places, right. I mean, the president has threatened to use federal authority in this area, which is unprecedented. So those are the things that that keep me up at night. I mean, frankly, there there’s something that’s called the election administrator’s prayer, which is, oh God, whatever happens, please don’t let it be close. Because if it’s close, then all of the kind of fragile uh aspects of our electoral system then come into full view. And so if it’s a close election that, for example, is determined by absentee ballots in the Midwestern battleground states, that’s the worst case scenario because there’ll be a lot of conflict and litigation over that. Not to get too much into the constitutional machinery here, but could end up with competing slates of electors for the Electoral College. And we’ve never really been in a situation like that. And given the background polarization of our politics right now, it’s not as if reason is going to win the day here and say, oh, yes, I recognize that my opponent has won. Um it then, you know, people will retreat into their tribes and process information that’s more friendly to their outcome.
Betty: And in this situation, Nate, you know, given that we’re calling on you to ground us in in the situation as it stands so that we don’t and our listeners don’t go off into anxiety mode any any sooner or any more than necessary. Um how do we put those guardrails up on social media and use our minds and our ability to reflect? Do we just unplug and not expose ourselves to the algorithms and the things and draw our fear centers and our anger centers to the outrage and the spectacles? How do we think about this and reflect rather than react?
Nate: Well, I think that right now social media is pretty much mirroring what’s happening on cable news, which is mirroring what’s happening in the larger society. So so it’s it’s hard to escape polarizing and emotional information right now, whether it’s about, you know, the fires in California or the pandemic or or politics right now. So it it is very hard to escape. I do think those in a position of authority, um whether it’s in the media or or politics, do need to be vigilant about the problems that that we see, but also emphasize that the basic infrastructure of the democracy is going to work. And so let me take an example of like something that’s come up over the summer, which is the frailty of the Postal Service. And so a lot of people are worried, right, that their ballot is not going to count uh if they drop it in the mail, that there’s gonna be political manipulation and the like. And so while we need to have congressional hearings that hold the postmaster general to account, we need to make sure that everything is being done, I can tell you that if you talk to the local postal officials, right, they say this is not going to be as big a problem as it seems. Now, however, that doesn’t mean that people should wait until the last minute to mail their ballot. Um the message that should be sent is that, look, if you’re gonna vote by mail, vote as early as possible, and that’s the safest way to make sure um that your vote gets in on time. Because even before this election, even before the last year of issues with the Postal Service, the post office has not delivered bills, ballots on time in many elections so that the month or so that you have in order to vote when you get your mail ballot, right, if you wait until last five to ten days, you are risking that your ballot’s not going to count. And so people need to vote as early as possible. So that that’s the way of trying to say that, look, it is in your hands. You have the power to vote in a way where you know your vote is going to be counted. You just have to follow these rules.
Jonathan: Nate, how about people who are inclined to not vote by mail, but they’re planning to show up in person? Um I’m thinking about your work on HealthyElections.org. And I’m wondering what you can tell voters to reassure them about the medical health of voting in person. Are are there some states that are better prepared or or or worse? Do the same rules apply about masks and social distance or is voting different?
Nate: Sure. So this is the the Stanford MIT Healthy Elections Project. I sort of have dropped most of my cyber work that I had expected to be dominant for this election and really been focusing on the kind of work that I did when I was the research director of the president’s Commission on Election Administration after the 2012 election. And that was the commission that President Obama put together to deal with long lines on Election Day, as well as the natural disasters and voting like Hurricane Sandy. Uh we didn’t predict that we’d have to deal with a pandemic in voting. So that was a a void in that report. But some of the same lessons apply. And so Charles Stewart and MIT and I started this project to work with local election officials to help them pull off this election. And first of all, I want to urge people to vote early in person if they can. Um that is not only a safe way to get the vote counted or, you know, early, but it also relieves the burden on election officials so that we don’t have the post-processing that is required for absentee ballots and the like, as well as relieving the stress of in-person voters on Election Day. But, you know, the electoral system has adopted the same kinds of safety measures that larger society has, right. And so you will see, you know, blue pieces of tape every six feet outside a polling place, right. You will see masks that will be provided, hand sanitizer and the like, disinfectant for the voting machines. The CDC and the Election Assistance Commission have prescribed all kinds of rules here. So so they’re prepared for this. And I think that, you know, it does add to the anxiety, uh just as is true in any public setting that we engage in these days. But the election officials are you know prepared for this. And and there are some new adaptations like this whole idea of arena voting, where you have some of the NBA teams that are contributing their arenas to make sure there’s a lot of social distance when people vote.
Jonathan: When you think about the preparations that states have taken, we’re so balkanized in our in our electoral system. Are there states that are doing it better? Are there states doing it worse?
Nate: There are states, right, there states that were all vote by mail to begin with. Places like Washington and Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii that were 100 percent vote by mail. And so the pandemic doesn’t really affect them all that much. And I should add that in places, even a place like Colorado, while we call them vote by mail states, seventy five percent of Colorado voters actually deposit their ballot into a ballot dropbox, not into a into a mailbox. And then there are states like California and Arizona. California has moved toward all vote by mail for this election, when say that, they’re going to make ballots available to everybody through the mail even though there will be some polling places and Arizona has historic rates, around 80 percent, of voting by mail. So they’ll be able to adapt in ways that others can’t. The the ones that are of concern are the battleground states in the Midwest where, you know, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have historic rates of absentee balloting under five percent, Michigan roughly 20 percent. Florida is actually quite well, I think, adapted to this environment. They have historically had a third vote by mail, a third vote in person, and the third vote on Election Day. It’ll probably be roughly half will vote by mail and maybe only 25 percent will vote on Election Day in person. So based on those sort of historic rates of polling place versus absentee balloting, you’ll have different rates of preparedness. But on the question of, say, use of PPE and the adaptations of the polling places and all of that, everyone’s getting the same instructions. And we’ve we’ve worked with some election officials. If you go to HelpTheElections.org, you can see our guide to healthy polling places which we’ve given out to local officials to help.
Betty: And so in the short term, Nate, just even by your tone of voice, it sounds like we’re doing everything we can and and that we’ve got this as much as we can get this. It’s not chaotic. It’s being managed um even in the high infection rate states. But in the in the longer term, you know, looking at November 3rd and really beyond, like, how do we sort of look at social media? How do we think about it? How can we be sane about this? How do we you know take some time so that we can choose leaders and take in our information in ways so that we can think about it rather than just react to the latest crisis. You know, you’re talking about a critique of the media. It sounds like.
Nate: Well, yes, there’s some of that. And let me let me actually join that with Jonathan’s question earlier about nightmare scenarios. So one of the things that is concerning, right, is if it is a close election on election night where we don’t really know the winner and it will be determined by the processing and counting of absentee ballots in the succeeding week, how do we deal with that uncertainty? Right, you talk about anxiety, right, there there’s the most anxious moment where we don’t really know what the outcome is going to be. And if at the same time you have the candidates each declaring victory or one of them declaring victory and the other waiting, that’s particularly disconcerting because then there’s going to be allegations that the election has been rigged, that there was fraud, or even that these absentee ballots shouldn’t be counted because they’re somehow inherently tainted, right. And so um you asked me about afterwards, but we there’s a lot we can do to try to inoculate ourselves from that anxiety now. And that is to explain to people what that process is going to look like, what, you know, they can expect. Um we’ve often thought of putting something up on our website called what to expect when you’re expecting election results, you know? And the idea is that, look, this is not unnatural. This is the way the process works, which is that you should expect that they’re they’re verifying signatures on these mail ballots. They’re giving people an opportunity if there is a mismatch of their signature to come in and cure it. You know, historically, this is how long it has taken. And that doesn’t mean that there’s there’s manipulation. We need the election officials to be transparent about what they’re doing, but at the same time, we need, you know, and this is the hard part, is we need this this vote counting to occur under relative conditions of social peace, right, so that you don’t have people trying to break down the doors of the canvassing boards and trying to interrupt the count. And so the media organizations have, you know, a very important role to play here. Social media does as well. And I’ll tell you, if you look at the Voting Information Center on Facebook, they have uh tried to provide information there that will counteract some of the most sort of conspiracy mongering that you see. Now, the truth is only elites who really care about elections are going into the Voting Information Center. But what they are doing is they are also using the information that is there to then put alerts next to news articles that are referring to things like mail balloting and the like. So it’s trying to dilute the impact of the most incendiary items that might appear there. In addition, you’ll start seeing over the next month a series of videos that Facebook will be serving up on how to vote your mail ballot correctly. You know, in order to have it counted, as well as reminders that are provided by election officials at the top of your feed. And so those are the kinds of things that we can do is to try to set the stage going forward to manage expectations in the event there’s a crisis.
Betty: That’s great. That’s great. I mean, Nate, you know, when I asked you to join us, I wanted you to sort of ground us and be our voting doctor. And you’ve really done it because when we work with those who are traumatized, we want to empower them and give them the information that they can do things for themselves. And so what you’re doing right here right now is telling us as voters what we can do and what we don’t have to pay attention to because we don’t know what that is really grounded in. And just focus on our part, not everybody else’s, you know, do the thing that we can do and go forward. I mean, this is fantastic. Thank you so much.
Nate: Well, thanks for having me.
Jonathan: We’ll keep your words close in mind as we approach Election Day. And we’ll be thinking about particularly the uh activities in the battleground states.
Nate: As I said, repeat the election administrator’s prayer. Oh God, whatever happens, please don’t let it be close. So with that, we’ll go on.
Betty: Thanks for joining us on this episode of Mind of State. And thanks again to our guest, Nate Persily. You can find out more about his latest project at HealthyVoting.org.
Jonathan: If you like this episode, you’ll find plenty more on Apple podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcasts. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at Mind of State Pod. Our website is MindofState.com.
Betty: Mind of State is produced by Alletta Cooper and Jenny Woodward. Special thanks to our co-founder, Thomas Singer. I’m Betty Teng.
Jonathan: And I’m Jonathan Kopp. Join us next time on Mind of State.