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Early voting and vote-by-mail numbers for 2020 have far surpassed previous records heading into Election Day. (Getty Images)

What to watch for on Election Day

VCU experts say early voting, voter turnout and the role of the suburbs could be key in this year’s elections.

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Voter turnout in Tuesday’s election has already shattered records and much is at stake in its outcome. In addition to the presidential race, voters in Virginia will cast ballots for U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives and two proposed constitutional amendments, including one on bipartisan redistricting.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, faculty experts in the Department of Political Science have been closely following the election, and have been contributing analyses along with colleagues from across the College of Humanities and Sciences to a 2020 election guide. VCU News recently asked several of them what they’ll watch for as election results are reported Tuesday night:

Amanda Wintersieck, Ph.D.
Amanda Wintersieck, Ph.D.

Amanda Wintersieck, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science

Wintersieck studies political behavior and political communication, and is specifically interested in the effects of political campaigns on voters’ evaluations of candidates, on the role the media plays in vote choice and the conditions that advantage a candidate’s campaign.

“I am continuing to follow early voter/vote-by-mail turnout. As of today, Oct. 30, more than 82 million Americans have already voted. This has dramatically exceeded 2016 early voting/vote-by-mail numbers. Additionally, early voting in key battleground states has exceeded expectations. This trend points to the potential for record voter turnout this year. I will be continuing to follow early voting/mail voting and, on Election Day, I will be following turnout. It will be interesting to see if the availability of early voting alleviates some pressures from polling places on Nov. 3. For example, if we see reduced wait times.”

Jatia Wrighten, Ph.D.
Jatia Wrighten, Ph.D.

Jatia Wrighten, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science

Wrighten conducts research on Black women, state legislatures and leadership, with an emphasis on intersectionality, and her research and instruction emphasize themes of equality, justice and political effects.

“As Election Day draws near, the issue that I continue to return to is voter suppression. It is concerning that the Trump administration has effectively aligned voting by mail with voter fraud. As this country is a democracy, voting is the primary way citizens are able to exercise their power in our governing institutions. What are the long-term effects of this rhetoric? We have seen what happens when voter suppression is successful — i.e. Jim Crow. Are we to ignore the lessons of the past and continue down this path that will systematically oppress the voices of the most marginalized groups in this country?

“The election results of 2020, and the perceived legitimacy of its results, may very well determine if in our lifetime we will see history repeat itself. What legacy, concerning voting, do we want to leave for generations to come?”

Michael A. Paarlberg, Ph.D.
Michael A. Paarlberg, Ph.D.

Michael A. Paarlberg, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science

Paarlberg focuses on the politics of immigration, crime and demagoguery around those issues. A key factor in Tuesday’s outcome, he said, is the role of the suburbs and the increasing population and diversity found there.

“Politicians and pundits frequently invoke ‘the suburbs’ as an all-important contested territory in elections, but are often informed by inaccurate stereotypes. ‘Suburbs’ evokes images of wealthy white constituents who are moderate and undecided voters, and cited as the reason neither party can move too far to the extremes. This is wrong in many respects.

“First, undecided voters are usually lying about being undecided, are not so much moderate as ideologically inconsistent, pay little attention to politics and often don’t vote at all. But more to the point, suburbs are neither overwhelmingly white nor necessarily swingy. Suburbs have about the same percentage of nonwhite residents as the country as a whole, and in metropolitan areas, the majority of the nonwhite population lives in the suburbs. And as those suburbs grow in population, they have become more firmly Democrat. There isn’t anything magical about suburbs.

“Today, vote choice is largely a question of population density. There are relatively few urban areas today that vote Republican, and relatively few rural areas that vote Democrat. So pro-growth Republican mayors and governors face a catch-22: the more businesses and residents they attract to formerly low-density areas, the more likely they will be voted out of office one day.”

Jason Ross Arnold, Ph.D.
Jason Ross Arnold, Ph.D.

Jason Ross Arnold, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science

Arnold’s research interests include national and domestic security in American political development and information politics — especially involving government secrecy, disinformation, citizen awareness, whistleblowing and leaking.

“I’m going to look out for social media mis- and dis-information about voting fraud, battleground state vote winners, and hacked voting systems. We know that foreign and domestic actors have already engaged in the propagation of lies and otherwise misleading claims about those and other subjects.

“I’m expecting a surge of false claims on Election Day, some of which could gain traction on their own on social media. But I’m especially concerned about mass media organizations picking up and propagating unverified false claims, which could contribute to a level of chaos and confusion during subsequent legal battles that will make the fraught, contested count in 2000 seem like a minor partisan squabble.”

Alex Keena, Ph.D.
Alex Keena, Ph.D.

Alex Keena, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science

Keena’s work focuses broadly on political representation in the context of U.S. politics, and his areas of specialization include electoral systems, campaign finance, political geography and legislative behavior.

“I am going to be looking at Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. In 2016, Donald Trump won the Electoral College because he won those three states by a combined margin of less than 80,000 votes. I am going to be looking specifically at vote returns in metropolitan Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Detroit. These are areas that overwhelmingly favor Democrats and where we saw a dip in 2016 voter turnout relative to 2012 and 2008. If we see high voter turnout here on election night — even if the mail-in ballots are still being processed — this will mean trouble for President Trump.”