American Democracy Project discussion aims to bring needed clarity to election outcome

Roger Coda
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A panel of political observers assembled at Fredonia will put results of the General Election – with the focus on the Presidency, of course – into a welcomed perspective at a virtual discussion, “The Results Explained & How to Stay Involved,” on Thursday, Nov. 12, from 4 to 5 p.m.

Those interested in viewing the event should register online. Once registration has taken place, participants will receive the Zoom login information.

Department of Politics and International Affairs Professor and Chair David Rankin; SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus James Hurtgen; Academic Advising Assistant David Phillips; first-year student Isabella “Bella” Wilder, first-year student majoring in Political Science and Adolescence Education: Social Studies, from Bergen; and a member of the Chautauqua County Board of Elections will participate in the panel discussion, arranged by Fredonia’s American Democracy Project (ADP).

Serving as moderators will be ADP Chair and Department of Communication Assistant Professor Angela McGowan-Kirsch and Thomas Sheffield, a senior majoring in Political Science and Applied Music: Jazz and president of Fredonia Democracy Initiative, from Ballston Spa.

“The high stakes of the 2020 election are deeply felt by members of our campus community and the results of this election will impact students and instructors alike,” Dr. McGowan-Kirsch said.

Helping the campus community make sense of the results and share ideas of how its members can remain involved in politics are goals of the panel discussion, McGowan-Kirsch explained, referring to a recent article, “Avoiding Postelection Student Unrest,” in the daily news website Inside Higher Ed, that outlines a strategy for campus leaders to help students deal productively with their disappointment and anger, regardless of the political outcome.

“Our moderators will ask panelists questions that allow for the free and fair exchange of ideas in a politically divided time. We look forward to the Fredonia campus coming together to learn about the 2020 election and how we can remain civically engaged,” McGowan-Kirsch said.

“Our moderators will ask panelists questions that allow for the free and fair exchange of ideas in a politically divided time. -  Dr. Angela McGowan-Kirsch

Of particular interest to Dr. Rankin are the voter margins and turnout in recent swing states in the Great Lakes region, such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Barack Obama won all four states in 2008 and 2012, but Donald Trump won them in 2016. Mr. Trump narrowly won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by a combined total of about 80,000 overall votes across these three states, adding up to 46 electoral votes.

“The relative breakdown of voter demographics and issue concerns will likely be the electoral difference in these states in 2020,” said Rankin, who has taught at Fredonia for 21 years.

“Thus, voter turnout and who turns out in the 2020 election will play a critical role in the outcome, wherein voter registration and early voting trends have been at higher rates than in 2016, including for younger voters,” Rankin explained. “Voter turnout for the election could also impact congressional elections in close races. With increased polarization, party control of the House and Senate is increasingly essential to the nation's policy direction as well as political and constitutional debates, including hearings and impeachment.”

Mr. Sheffield said it’s very important to recognize what is happening and make sense of it all, something ADP's panel will try to do. “More importantly, we will also be discussing ways in which students and others can continue to stay involved. No matter what happens, democracy can only function if citizens participate and we hope to give everyone the tools to do just that."

There’s universal agreement among panelists that this election is unprecedented, and that the stakes couldn’t be greater.

This election, no matter who wins, will be like no other, Sheffield observed. Millions of Americans have already started voting, he noted, “and it is very likely that we will not know for certain who the winner is on election night. Both sides have gathered large teams of skilled lawyers and advisors ready to engage in a prolonged legal and constitutional fight if necessary,” Sheffield said.

“Regardless of outcome, historians and political scientists will argue that this is the most consequential election – for president and Congress since the election of 1932 that produced the presidency of FDR – some might argue more consequential than that one,” affirmed Dr. Hurtgen, who cast his first vote in a presidential election in 1968, but who’s closely watched these elections since Kennedy/Nixon in 1960.

Until the final tallies by state are known, which could take some time, it will be difficult to know with confidence what produced the outcome, said Hurtgen, who taught at Fredonia for 43 years. Current reporting indicates that President Trump's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is a major issue, at least in a number of key states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The recent performance of the economy is also likely to bear strongly on the outcome, he added. 

Less tangle factors, such as “Trump fatigue,” may play an important role, Hurtgen suggests.

“The 1920 election promised a "return to normalcy" if Harding was elected,” Hurtgen said. “Voters did want less drama then, and there is a good likelihood they want less now. However, until more voter studies are conducted, we will have to rely upon speculation for a couple of weeks or more after the election.”

Ms. Wilder believes a multitude of rights that have been in place for a while or were gained during the Obama administration are on the line. With this in the minds of many, a wave of youth have been registering to vote, Wilder said, “and not only do I find that fascinating, I find it admirable.”

The world that results from this election will affect the character of the nation’s politics, and of American life more broadly than any election since 1932, Hurtgen believes. Moreover, elections in America can have a "demonstration effect" in other democracies, he added.

“This year's election could have an important impact on elections in the EU and elsewhere. So the stakes are not ours alone,” Hurtgen said.

“So, two words:  It's big!”

The sheer amount of information generated and presented across all media platforms and in conversation has helped make this the closest election Mr. Phillips has ever followed.

“I think it’s important for people to know what shaped someone’s political viewpoints,” Phillips explained. That task can be daunting, though, due to numerous influences, he suggests. Phillips’ traces his interest in politics to comedians such as George Carlin, Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle and Lewis Black, among others.

At the end of the event, winners of the ADP’s election 2020 competition will be announced. Students will be entered to win $50 or $100 for the student club of their choice each time they participate in an election-themed event.

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