If it feels like the 2020 election has been going on forever, that’s partly because the last one never really ended. The stunning results of the 2016 election opened up enormous questions about how American politics and society function, or don’t, in the digital age—from the electoral role of social media platforms to election security to the possibility of measuring public opinion in an era of mistrust and polarization.
Now we’re in the home stretch, as the candidates make their final pitches: Joe Biden promises a general return to decency and competence, while Donald Trump tweets praise for anti-Biden vigilantism and threatens to go to court to stop lawfully cast absentee ballots from being counted. It might not happen by Wednesday morning, but this election has to end sometime. So while I don’t want to jinx it, it seems we’re finally on the verge of getting some answers to the lingering questions of 2016. Which is good, because the results of this year’s election—and the way it plays out on the ground, regardless of who wins—will inevitably open a whole new batch of things to puzzle over.
Can social media platforms keep election disinformation under control?
There are two things just about all experts agree on about Election Day: First, there’s a good chance we won’t have a winner declared by the end of the night, as states continue to process and count mail-in ballots. (FiveThirtyEight has a handy guide to what this process will look like.) Second, into that period of uncertainty will flow premature claims of victory and attempts to interfere with the process—most likely from America’s shitposter in chief, Donald Trump, who is all but guaranteed to declare victory if he’s leading in the ballots counted on Tuesday evening. Trump has repeatedly telegraphed his intention to do this, declaring on Twitter and in person that the election should end on November 3, notwithstanding the fact that states never finish counting all votes by the end of Tuesday night, even if media decision desks declare a winner.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google have all announced policies attempting to neutralize the impact of false information aimed at undermining the election. Twitter says it will label premature claims of victory and direct users to its official election page. It’s also deploying proactive prompts to US-based users reminding them of the legitimacy of mail-in ballots and preparing them for the likelihood of delayed results. Facebook has said it will remove any posts that claim voting will give people Covid-19 and will add labels to any premature claim of victory, directing users to official results from Reuters and the National Election Pool. According to The Wall Street Journal, the social network has emergency plans to head off dangerous information before it goes viral. YouTube, meanwhile, plans to “prominently surface a new election results information panel at the top of search results for a broad range of queries related to the election and under videos that discuss the election.” Both Facebook and YouTube’s parent company, Google, have hit pause on accepting any new political advertisements.
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These moves will be the most visible instances yet of the platforms’ growing willingness to moderate political content, including the speech of powerful political figures. But recent history lays bare the difference between stated policy and implementation. Just in the past few weeks, the platforms have bungled their own policies, whether it’s Twitter misapplying its hacked materials rules to block a sketchy New York Post story or Facebook botching the implementation of its new-political-ads ban.
The role of social media platforms in distributing fake news and facilitating political ads aimed at voter suppression is a big reason why they’re under the gun in Washington right now. This year’s election provides an opportunity to prove they can keep their platforms clean, politically speaking. But if something goes wrong, they will learn the same lesson politicians already know too well: When it comes to elections, there are no do-overs.
Can Mark Zuckerberg get out the vote?
It isn’t generally a great sign when you hear “Facebook” and “election” in the same sentence. But the company has made a major push this year to expand democratic participation, prominently featuring a Voter Information Center at the top of users’ feeds that included links to register to vote, apply for an absentee ballot, and even volunteer as a poll worker. It isn’t alone. Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok have also been nudging users to vote. Snapchat says it helped more than a million people register through its app by early October, more than half of whom would be first-time voters. But Facebook makes the grandest claim, estimating that 4.4 million people registered through its various apps. If that’s true, it could mean a significant number of new, disproportionately young voters join the electorate, helping to address the horrifically anemic participation rate of America’s youth. That would be good news for Facebook’s reputation—and for American democracy.
Can digital door-knocking replace the real thing?
Among the many industries upended by the coronavirus pandemic was traditional campaigning. A highly communicable virus makes for awkward conversations with canvassers on your doorstep. This is particularly acute for Democrats, whose voters and volunteers are statistically much more likely to be concerned about the virus than Republicans. Indeed, the Trump campaign claims to have deployed an extensive door-knocking operation, though at least one reporter has found those efforts to be sparser than advertised.
Even before the pandemic hit, however, Democrats believed they had an edge in the digital ground game. Tools like Mobilize, an events platform, and Team, a “relational organizing” app, allow Democratic campaigns and volunteers to connect online and leverage their existing social networks into get-out-the-vote efforts. The Republican digital organizing infrastructure is far less advanced.
Armed with new apps and a deep supply of texting, phone-banking volunteers, the Biden campaign has insisted that the decision to greatly reduce canvassing in person is no problem. This bucks decades of conventional wisdom and political science research suggesting that face-to-face conversations are the gold standard when it comes to turning out voters. But sending out canvassers to knock on doors is expensive. A Biden win could cause future campaigns to rethink how they allocate their scarce get-out-the-vote resources.
Is Twitter real life?
Trump versus Biden offers no shortage of contrasts. Here’s one that has stood out in the waning days of the campaign: The incumbent president is extremely online, while the former vice president is very much not. Since his original run for office, Trump has famously made social media the centerpiece of his messaging and fundraising strategy. He now seems to inhabit the pro-Trump conservative online echo chamber he helped create, peppering his rallies and debate appearances with references to memes and conspiracy theories that might not make much sense to the majority of the electorate, which doesn’t spend time on Twitter.
As for Biden? As my colleague Kate Knibbs has written, Joe is a temperamentally offline candidate. During the Democratic primary, he mostly refused to cater to the prevailing opinion on Twitter, which was to the left of the overall primary electorate. While his campaign has certainly invested in social media advertising and even branched into new digital domains like, um, Animal Crossing, Biden the nominee has mostly stuck to an old-school approach. No meme armies, no overwhelming surge of rabid online fans, no viral Twitter dunks.
If Facebook and Twitter engagement translated directly to votes, Trump would probably win all 50 states. But then again, he’d be facing Bernie Sanders in this election, not Biden. The conventional wisdom after 2016 was that everyone besides Trump ignored the importance of social media. 2020 could be a referendum on what happens when a candidate goes too far down the online rabbit hole.
Will our election infrastructure hold up?
The 2016 election brought new attention to election systems and their potential vulnerabilities. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly blocked efforts in Congress to help states shore up defenses, there have been some improvements, including an encouraging increase in the use of paper ballots or machines with auditable paper trails.
Trump’s Department of Homeland Security has even quietly continued the Obama administration’s policy of treating election systems as “critical infrastructure.” As The Washington Post reports, the department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency will launch a war room, beginning on Election Day, to mount “the largest operation to secure a US election, aiming to prevent a repeat of Russia’s 2016 interference and to ward off new threats posed by Iran and China.”
While election officials are still concerned about cyber mishaps, from ransomware attacks to creaking voting machines, they've also spent the past four years shoring up these systems. Problems may arise on Tuesday, but that's why security measures and backups are there. A recent inspector general report praised the CISA for securing America’s election infrastructure but warned that its parent agency hasn’t done enough to protect against physical threats, like terrorism or violence aimed at polling places. If the first part of the assessment proves true, it will go a long way to shoring up faith in a vulnerable patchwork of election systems. If the second does, we could look back wistfully on the days when all we had to worry about was Russian hackers.
What’s the future of mail-in voting?
Before March 2020, expanding vote-by-mail was an electoral reform enjoying a quiet, bipartisan, gradual spread across the country—from true-blue California to beet-red Utah. A few states already run their elections entirely by mail. The system has many virtues: far higher turnout in non-presidential elections, especially among young people; greater convenience; and a guaranteed paper trail. Nor is there any evidence that it enables widespread voter fraud, contrary to the president’s claims.
With the arrival of the pandemic, and a nation suddenly wary of congregating to vote in person, election administrators scrambled to expand access to mail-in ballots. But what appeared at first like a public health question quickly took on major partisan overtones. As Trump simultaneously demonized voting by mail and downplayed the threat of the virus, a rift emerged among voters, with Democrats heavily favoring voting by mail and Republicans preferring to vote in person. This, in turn, led Republican politicians in swing states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to make it hard for mail-in ballots to be counted and led also to a flurry of last-minute litigation aimed at reversing extensions imposed to allow ballots mailed on time, but received late, to count. The results of those lawsuits could decide the outcome of the election, if it’s closer than expected.
All this throws the continued expansion of mail-in voting in doubt. On the one hand, tens of millions of Americans who never voted by mail before will now be familiar with it. On the other, a previously quiet, nonpartisan reform idea has been branded in the starkest partisan terms and has become tied to ugly political and legal maneuvering that could ultimately make the 2000 Florida recount look like a tea party. The degree to which mail-in voting appears to play a decisive role in the outcome of the election could go a long way to determining whether more or fewer Americans end up voting by mail in years to come.
Did pollsters learn the right lessons from 2016—or is another surprise in store?
The failure of polls in 2016 has been a bit overstated. The final national polls, on average, were only about two points off of Hillary Clinton’s eventual 2 percent popular vote victory. The big miss was in the surprise Rust Belt swing states, where polls systemically undersampled white voters without college degrees—a bloc that decisively broke for Trump and gave him his narrow victory.
Pollsters hate being wrong, and most have updated their methods, adjusting results to reflect the distribution of college and non-college white voters to avoid a 2016 replay. There’s reason to think the state polls will accordingly be more reliable this year. But the thing about unexpected errors is that they’re unexpected. While the polling industry has largely learned the lessons of 2016, there’s at least some danger that they’ve been fighting the proverbial last war while overlooking some new demographic realignment. In which case it will be very hard to get anyone to trust political polls again.
For the record, Biden is up eight points in the New York Times national average, as of Monday morning, and is up six points in Pennsylvania, the most likely tipping-point state.
Is it possible to win reelection while presiding over a catastrophically inept pandemic response?
More than 230,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus, and the pandemic is roaring into a new wave. The Trump administration, after months of doing almost everything completely wrong—including denying the severity of the problem, offering unclear and contradictory guidance along with outright misinformation, undermining public health experts’ recommendations, and personally hosting an apparent super-spreader event at the White House, to offer an incredibly truncated list—has now simply and explicitly given up on controlling the virus. Trump claims that the nation is “making that beautiful turn” and falsely insists that we’re on the cusp of having a widely available vaccine. He complains about media coverage of the pandemic at rallies, and his chief of staff told Meet the Press that the country won’t get the virus under control.
Despite all that, there’s still a small chance Trump will win anyway.
We won't know until all the votes are counted. It may take a few days, it may take a few weeks—and if it does, that doesn't necessarily mean there’s a problem. It will just be a reminder that in 2020, nothing is quick and painless.