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Take Note: Democracy Works Podcast Hosts On Voting And Trust In The Elections

Head shots of Michael Berkman and Candis Watts Smith
The McCourtney Institute

The Presidential election is about a month away. Mail-in ballots, whether people will trust the election results, and the role of local politics are a few of the issues factoring into the race. WPSU's Anne Danahy spoke about those topics and more with Michael Berkman and Candis Watts Smith from The McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. 

Berkman is director of the institute and a professor of political science. Smith is an associate professor of political science and African-American Studies, and part of The McCourtney Institute. Berkman and Smith are two of the hosts of the institute’s podcast, Democracy Works.


Anne Danahy: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU, I'm Anne Danahy. The presidential election is about a month away. Mail-in ballots, whether people will trust the election results, and the role of local politics are a few of the issues in the news. Joining us to break all that down are Michael Berkman and Candis Watts Smith from the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. Michael Berkman is director of the Institute and a professor of political science. Smith is an associate professor of political science and African American studies and part of the McCourtney Institute. Berkman and Smith are two of the hosts of the Institute's podcast, "Democracy Works." Michael Berkman and Candis Watts Smith, thank you for joining us. Let's start by talking about polling. Michael, do national polls matter? It really comes down to a state-by-state race, right? So, do those national polls matter?

Michael Berkman: Anne, well, you're certainly correct. It's going to come down to a state-by-state race. And if it's-- if the polling is close nationally, then those state polls become ever more important. National polls are often of very high-quality. It's tougher to get high-quality state polls, but it would be nice to have more.

Anne Danahy: Candis, when you look at those national polls, what's your takeaway from them? Do they serve a purpose?

Candis Watts Smith: Sure, I mean, the thing is, is that we also calculate the national popular vote. And so, I think some of these tell us, you know, we can try to figure out are they helping us predict something? Or are they telling us something about what the public thinks about politics and thinks about the candidate? So sure, you know, it would be really great to have excellent state-by-state polls to use as predictions. But national polls can tell us about the extent to which a president has a mandate. It can tell us the extent to which we have contestation in the public around various issues and candidates, and they can tell us, maybe potentially signal to candidates the extent to which they need to compromise, that they might need to move to the center or move away from factionalism. So national polls can can give us a lot of information about maybe what the public sentiment is, maybe not necessarily election predictions.

Anne Danahy: Oh, that's interesting. So, kind of the national mood. And when you look at the national polls and getting a sense of the national mood right now, what are you seeing, Michael? Because the numbers have been fairly steady, right? At the national level?

Michael Berkman: The stability is downright remarkable. And it seems like no matter what happens, whether it's something that should reflect favorably on the president or something that should reflect negatively on the president, his approval doesn't really seem to change very much. And his standing in the horse race polls doesn't seem to, to change very much. So, what I see in the polls more than anything is a sense of stability about the race and a sense that a lot of people have made up their minds.

Anne Danahy: Michael, one of the issues that came up with the last presidential election was whether people were being honest with pollsters, or they're saying, "I'm gonna vote for this person" and then [they] vote for somebody else.

Michael Berkman: I actually think there's not a whole lot of evidence for that. And, you know, one way of looking at this question, it often comes up in terms of what's referred to as like "hidden Trump voters" or "Trump voters who don't want to acknowledge that they're going to vote for Trump." But they do, you know, the internet polls show pretty much the same thing as we find in the person-to-person polls, and there's no reason that somebody wouldn't be honest on an internet poll.

Anne Danahy: If you drive around Pennsylvania, you'll see a lot of political signage right now. And I can't say who is winning the sign wars this time around. But it appears that Democrats are making more of an effort this time than four years ago. And seeing all these signs on both sides, I wonder, does it matter? What's the purpose of all this political signage? What role does it serve, Candis?

Candis Watts Smith: It's funny that you asked that, Anne, I was just having this conversation with my husband about what the purpose is. I think, on some level, we are at a moment where the election is speaking to people's values. And increasingly we see that people's partisanship is becoming central to their identity. And so, in some ways, it could be that people are saying, "I want you to know what it is that I think about what's going on in this world, what direction that we need to move, and also to tell you about myself, my values, who I support," right. In addition to the kind of Biden or Trump signs, we also see signs about Black Lives Matter, Police Lives Matter. You know, here are our values. We welcome everybody. So, I think that in addition to the kind of red, blue, you know, "who am I going to vote for," people are also displaying something about themselves in these signs.

Anne Danahy: A big issue right now is absentee voting, mail-in voting especially. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are taking a look at if they can mail-in their ballots or do it another way without waiting in line. And we got this comment from a listener, and it's from Tom and Tom says he's "scared that if President Trump loses the election, he won't accept the results, and he'll start tweeting that the election was fraudulent and 'call on his band of radicals to grab their guns and head to Washington.'" There's a lot of discussion around this. Do we know how things would actually play out if a president didn't accept the results, Michael?

Michael Berkman: We don't really know how this would play out. We're in some uncharted territory here. Although, you know, from back in 2000, with the fight in Florida, we saw quite how messy and long it can take in any one state if there's a question about the final outcome and if it's close; and I think the closeness of the election will dictate a lot about what happens after the election.

Anne Danahy: And Candis, do you see that taking away people's trust in the election at all?

Candis Watts Smith: Well, I think that's already going on and happening. You know, so much of our ideas about trust and legitimacy are psychological. And what we see is Donald Trump putting out seeds of doubt and other, you know, folks putting out seeds of doubt that will grow. And so, I actually find these kinds of things quite dangerous to talk about-- mail-in ballots as fraudulent or that there's going to be a lot of people who are voting that aren't supposed to vote. There's no data for that. But when you put that out in the ether as a possibility, what that means is that the truth and evidence-based facts also just become part of the cacophony of possibilities. So, you know, I find this kind of rhetoric very dangerous. For the extent to which people believe in institutions, so much of how democracy works is mostly just the idea that we believe that it works the way it's supposed to.

Anne Danahy: Right. So the idea kind of-- the more we as a country talk about whether the results will be accepted and whether the absentee voting will be valid and acceptable, the more credence it gives to those ideas, whether there's any actual facts behind them, [if we] keep talking about it, it just becomes part of the national conversation. Related to that, [I'll] put this one to you, Michael, is whether states will have their-- all their results on election night, and the idea that somehow that's how it's supposed to be, that for it to count when some states might have an election night, but some might not have it until later. Is that another element that's going to lend to mistrust?

Michael Berkman: Yes, I think that's a critical element, Anne. And I think it's incumbent on the media to prepare the public for the fact that we may well not have an election night outcome. In some states, with mail-in ballot states, especially that aren't very experienced with [a] high-volume of mail-in ballots, it can take a while, it can take days. Actually, we know from experience that it takes California weeks. Now, California is not going to be in question. But Pennsylvania certainly is critical. And Pennsylvania will probably take several days, if not longer. Michigan is probably going to take several days, if not longer. So, while some states like Florida will clearly know that night, because Florida starts counting its mail-in ballots before election day, other states will not. And, you know, one concern that I have, building on what Candis was saying before, is that Donald Trump in particular will declare himself the winner on election night based only on votes have been counted that day. But there is voting that will still have to take place over several days. And, and it's important that the public understand this.

Anne Danahy: So that even if the results come in and it changes the outcome, they-- it's too soon to declare on that. I want to go back, Candis, to one of the things you were saying, that there isn't any scientific basis for this-- these ideas that are being thrown out there. What do you think is the best approach to handling them? Is it something that the media should just like stop talking about so much? Or is it something that state and local leaders have to confront head on?

Candis Watts Smith: Sure. I think that it's something that we need to-- here's the thing, I think that sometimes in this effort to be fair and balanced, we give credence to ideas that just don't have any weight. And I think that we need to get comfortable with the idea that not every idea gets a say. And so, I think that it is incumbent upon leaders, it is incumbent upon the media to educate the public about how things work. The fact of the matter is, is that Donald Trump or Joe Biden can declare themselves the winner, and that's not how it works. Just like how, you know, and I, I'm gonna-- I hope this doesn't sound crass. But the idea that, you know, Ruth Bader Ginsburg says that is her dying wish that her seat doesn't get filled by the current president or before the election, that's not how things work. And so, I think it's really important for the American public to be educated about how things work. And the fact of the matter is, is that we have learned a lot about how politics works in this country. We learned about emoluments, we learned about impeachment, we learned about how many judges have to be on the SCOTUS, we've learned so many things and we're capable of learning new information and the right thing, but we have to get these messages very clearly shared with us and consistently.

Anne Danahy: Well, this election, in some ways, seems to be running totally counter the old political adage from former U.S. House Speaker, Tip O'Neill, that all politics is local. Michael, is this something that's happening now? Or has this been going on for years?

Michael Berkman: It's been going on for years. I think elections have become more nationalized. There's been less ticket splitting. There's a variety of evidence that politics have become more of a national than a local affair. But, you know, local issues matter, and they're going to matter in this election. You know, I've been intrigued since the Democratic primaries about the extent to which some of the Democratic party's opposition to fracking was going to matter in Pennsylvania. And things like that are going to matter in different states. There are still local issues that are important.

Anne Danahy; If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Anne Danahy. We're talking with Michael Berkman and Candis Watts Smith, faculty in the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State and hosts of the Institute's podcast, "Democracy Works." Right now, we're in a presidential election, so there's a lot of interest, there's likely to be a lot of high voter turnout. But in those off year elections, we see voter turnout that can be 25 to 30%, sometimes very low turnout. But those offices have a major impact on people's lives, local and state offices. Candis, why do you think turnout is so low for those local and state offices?

Candis Watts Smith: I mean, this has historically been true, that people have just been attracted to this business of the president. But our policy, our day-to-day life is influenced by local policy and local outcomes and state policy and outcomes. So, I don't know, I think, you know, part of it has to do with the amount of money that's spent in a, in a general like a presidential election year versus an off year. I think it has to do with civic education, about the extent to which people are aware of the importance of local elections. And I'm not-- not to say that the public is not smart. I'm not saying that at all. But I am saying that I don't know if we have gotten the education to really understand the necessity and importance of the off year elections, and even kind of special elections, right. So, I mean, I think that, yeah, I'll stop there and say I think that it's just a matter of how much attention is given by the media, how much money is spent by candidates, and how much we've been socialized to care about those off year elections.

Michael Berkman: And also, Anne, how much people know about these local elections. And so, it can be harder to gain information, to gather information about how candidates might differ, about who the candidates actually are. And so that can put off some people from voting if they don't feel comfortable that they really know what's happening. If they really [don't] know the candidates, they'll often just opt out.

Anne Danahy: Pennsylvania got rid of straight party voting in the election. So, in other words, you can't walk into the polling place and just say, "Okay, I'm voting all Democrat [or] all Republican." I have to go in and choose who I'm voting for in each of the races that's on a ballot. Michael, is that something that matters? How significant do you think that is?

Michael Berkman: You know, I don't think we really know. Studies may have been done on this I'm not aware of. I mean, when I think about the straight ticket voting, it always struck me as something kind of leftover from almost the machine politics days, of politics in many Northeastern states, including Pennsylvania, where in effect somebody would actually come to the ballot box, come to the voting booth and just be handed a ballot from one party or the other, and that's how they voted. And, you know, there was something to be said for that. Actually, when you go back to your last question about local elections, in Maine you really didn't need to know much about everybody on the ballot, you just knew that you were a Democrat or you were a Republican; and that's how you voted, straight down the ticket. People are uncomfortable with that these days. It seems like something from another time. I don't know how many states other than Pennsylvania we're actually still doing it.

Anne Danahy: And another change that could be coming in Pennsylvania is how upper court judges are elected. And, right now, it's a statewide election, and there's been a push by mostly Republicans in the General Assembly to change that to regional judges and elections, instead of having it statewide; and that would be a major change. And it's also something that doesn't get a lot of attention. Why do you think that is, that people don't pay attention to those court elections? Again, Candis, is that another case of where we don't have a lot of information about it?

Candis Watts Smith: I think this goes in this similar category of the things that we have come to believe are really important. Again, right, so even this moment with the Supreme Court nominee, in all of the controversy around confirmation and nomination processes, people are becoming more aware of the importance of courts. I know, for example, that increasingly judge, like judgeships or elections around judges, are essentially, I guess you can say, some of the cheapest seats to buy. I hate to say it that way. But we know that a lot of the way that people can fundraise and get out the vote can really influence a seat. And so, judicial seats have been one of the (I'm using my air quote fingers) to keep the seat, to get to buy. And so, now we're seeing, I think people are becoming more aware of how critical courts are in shape-- not shaping laws, but interpreting them and determining whether they're constitutional or unconstitutional. So, I think that we should be paying more attention. If people are-- if there is a contestation around a particular seat, kind of seat, then that means that there's something up for grabs, that there are high stakes. And so perhaps even this effort to change how these seats are elected, is it statewide? Is it regional? It's telling us that these seats are important for policy.

Anne Danahy: Yeah, definitely. And Michael, the courts are getting an incredible amount of attention, as Candis was saying, more attention maybe now than in the past, just looking at voting in Pennsylvania and mail-in ballots and whether they should be counted if they come in a few days after the election or not. Those are all things that are tied up in the courts right now.

Michael Berkman: Yeah, there are going to be a whole range of election questions for this in 2020 that are going to come down to the courts. Both parties have been-- both campaigns, I should say, have staffed up with quite a few attorneys. They are anticipating legal battles in many states. The Pennsylvania State Supreme Court could become very important, remember the role that the Florida State Supreme Court played in 2000. I don't expect the electorate remember that. But it was, it was all part of that. You know, and Democrats, go[ing] back to your original question, Democrats have been winning statewide elections, you know, with the exception of the presidential election and some senate elections, but they've been doing pretty well on state seats and on state offices. And so, they took the state Supreme Court and recent election. And so, usually when one side suggest changing the rules about how an election is to be held it's because they think it's going to benefit them.

Anne Danahy: Another kind of state and national issue, the electoral college. One of the big complaints about the electoral college is when it comes down to the election, we're looking at maybe 40,000 voters in Michigan or Pennsylvania. Do you think that if we continue to see that happening, where one candidate wins the national election but another candidate wins the electoral college, could that erode trust in our voting system, Michael?

Michael Berkman: Yes. I think it's, it's very problematic, and we're seeing it increasingly. And it's because we now have a party alignment that really kind of reflects the biases in some of our institutions. So, as one party has become really much stronger in rural areas, and another party has become much stronger in urban areas, that sort of maps onto the electoral college and onto the Senate. And so, these issues, I think, become much more important. You know, remember, there was a time when Democrats won rural states, and there was a time when Republicans won urban Northeastern states. And so, it didn't, it didn't matter so much. The electoral college didn't seem to favor one party over the other. But we're in a kind of different era now.

Candis Watts Smith: I mean, I think with the electoral college and people's attention to it, is that just because something is constitutional doesn't make it democratic. And I think that's what people are noticing, is that there are things that are in our Constitution that are perfectly legal, but when we look at the face of it, the outcome, especially if we do the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law, can be very undemocratic.

Michael Berkman: Absolutely, yes. In fact, designed to be undemocratic.

Candis Watts Smith: Yeah.

Michael Berkman: Designed to control majority impulses. I mean, they were quite clear about that, the framers.

Anne Danahy: And we've seen five presidential elections in U.S. history where the winner of the electoral college vote was not the winner of the popular vote. And, of course, two of those happened in recent times. So, does it feel like that is a trend, that things are going to continue going in that direction, Michael?

Michael Berkman: Well, under the current party alignment, yes. Now, party alignments don't last forever, but they do last for a long time. And, and these two parties are becoming more polarized from one another along these sort of lines. So yeah, I think this is a real issue. Again, if the election is close, then this is really going to matter. But if the election is not close, then people have much less of a difficult time, I think, accepting the outcome of the electoral college.

Anne Danahy: There's obviously a lot of conversations about race and racism going on right now. We have protests after the death of George Floyd. Do you see that, Michael, having any effect on the election? Do voters-- they have their position and it's already in line with who they're voting for-- so, they're not going to-- it's not going to sway them one way or another.

Michael Berkman: You know, I think that the Black Lives Matter protests have injected a great deal of intensity and energy onto one side, certainly, and I think it's also offered the president an opportunity to highlight isolated violent episodes to talk about his-- to talk about racial issues in coded and uncoded ways that he thinks will help him to turn out his base. So yes, I think it's going to make a difference in this election. I think it's hard to say exactly what the circumstances are going to be on the ground when we get to the election itself. But I certainly think it's interjected-- injected quite a bit into the election so far.

Candis Watts Smith: One of the things that has come out-- I read on Ballotpedia, I was just kind of looking at the different referenda and initiatives across the country. And there are 18 local police measure ballots that have qualified since George Floyd's death. So, the protests, you know, on the one hand, were kind of thinking about turnout in interest, but it's also changed the ballots that there are, for example, in Philadelphia, you know, on those ballots, there's a question about Stop-and-Frisk. There's a question about victim advocate. There's a question about a citizen police oversight commission. And then also in Allegheny County in Pittsburgh about an independent citizen review board. And so, you know, the protests have also changed what people are prioritizing and are requiring their policymakers to think about on questions of policing in particular.

Anne Danahy: Yeah, so that kind of highlights, again, the importance of local and state politics. Well, the national gets a lot of attention. That's how I frame the question as a national issue, but it's what's happening at that local and state level that becomes really important. So, the pandemic, those protests, the Supreme Court vacancy, all of that is what dominates the news and the election discussion. Michael, we'll start with you. Do you see future elections returning to the so-called "normal issues" that we're used to talking about, or at least get some attention, [such as] the economy, jobs, the environment education?

Michael Berkman: Well, I think the economy is going to be in this in any election. And, you know, anytime you have an incumbent there's going to be, to some extent, a referendum on the president going on. But, you know, these have been four, I guess, three, four, remarkable years in terms of the intense focus on the president to the extent to which the president has been constantly sort of in our minds, and from one scandal and one controversy to the next, and one sort of chaotic episode to the next. Hard for me to imagine that anybody else could quite take us back to this level. But, you know, it's-- a lots gonna depend on the outcome of this election as to what future elections are gonna look like. I'm hedging because anticipating the future these days feels really risky.

Anne Danahy: Right. That's why I'm asking you two do it, and I'm not predicting it. And, Candis, what are your thoughts on that? Do you see future elections and discussions returning at all to the so-called "normal issues?"

Candis Watts Smith: I don't know. And, one of the reasons why I don't know is because it will depend on whether we are willing to accept the norms that we are used to now, or if we're going to do something radically different. So, for example, in this conversation about the confirmation of the new Supreme Court Justice is, "Okay, well, if you get this Justice, then next time we're going to expand the court, or we're going to get rid of the filibuster, or we're going to add states." So, I mean, I can see us spiraling into a series of really important debates around electoral college, around filibuster, around states, around how many Justices. I mean, you know, and then there's the actual issues that the Supreme Court are going to see about: gun regulation, abortion, policing. So I can see us also shifting into a space where everything becomes flashpoints that we're all just kind of focused on, and I could see it being very-- I don't want to use the word "chaotic," but I can see us, I don't know what the word--

Anne Danahy: Intense.

Candis Watts Smith: Yeah, that's it. That's the word I'm looking for. I could see it being incredibly intense henceforth.

Michael Berkman: What Candis is describing there is also an artifact of having such highly polarized parties, parties that are organized along the kind of identity lines that Candis was talking about earlier. And that does lead to very intense conflictual politics. So, anticipating what future politics between parties like this will look, look like also requires us to have some understanding of what the party system is going to look like. And what will the Republican party look like, for example, if Donald Trump loses by a lot? And what will the Republican party look like if Donald Trump wins and gets another four years? And I think that is going to have a lot to do with-- I think we have a clear sense of where the Democratic party is doing-- is going just by looking at demographics.

Anne Danahy: We'll have to stay tuned. Well, Michael Berkman and Candis Watts Smith, thank you both for coming in to talk with us virtually.

Candis Watts Smith: It's a pleasure. Thanks, Anne.

Michael Berkman: Yeah, thank you, Anne. It was pleasure.

Anne Danahy: We've been talking with Michael Berkman and Candis Watts Smith, faculty in the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State and hosts of the podcast, "Democracy Works." To listen to this and other episodes of Take Note, go to I'm Anne Danahy, WPSU.

Anne Danahy has been a reporter at WPSU since fall 2017. Before crossing over to radio, she was a reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, and she worked in communications at Penn State. She is married with cats.
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