Assoc. Prof. Anthony Fowler
Big Brains podcst

The Future of Voting And The 2020 Election, with Assoc. Prof. Anthony Fowler (Ep. 54)

A leading political scholar discusses voting by mail, mobile voting and why he thinks it should be illegal not to vote.

Assoc. Prof. Anthony Fowler
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

The 2020 presidential election this November is happening amid an unprecedented pandemic. As states scramble to scale up mail-in voting, President Trump claims it will lead to widespread fraud. But what does a leading expert on voting think?

Assoc. Prof. Anthony Fowler is a leading University of Chicago scholar on voting and voter behavior. On this episode, we discuss mail-in and mobile voting, why he thinks it should be illegal not to vote, and how the voting map may look deceiving on Election Night.

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(Episode published September 17, 2020)



Paul Rand: You may have heard there’s an election coming up, and as the pandemic looms, states are scrambling to scale up mail-in voting.

Paul Rand: Mail-in voting is not new in the United States. What is new is the possibility that most states will offer it in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Paul Rand: Meanwhile, President Trump claims that increasing mail-in voting will create widespread fraud. That fraud he says would invalidate the election results, that is if he loses, of course.

President Trump: The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged. Remember that. It’s the only way we’re going to lose this election.

Paul Rand: That’s not to say that voting by mail will be a smooth process.

Anthony Fowler: There really are legitimate questions about how quickly will county election offices be able to process all of the mail ballots that they’re getting, especially if they’re not used to getting a lot of mail ballots before.

Paul Rand: This is University of Chicago political science scholar, Anthony Fowler. He’s also host of another University of Chicago podcast, Not Another Politics Podcast. I know you’re a podcasting pro at this point, so why don’t we go ahead-

Anthony Fowler: I’m not sure about that, but it does feel a little better on this end. I didn’t have to prepare as much because I’m, I hope, talking about things that I know about.

Paul Rand: What he knows the most about is voting and voter behavior. In fact, Fowler spent the better part of his career studying how this fundamental part of our democracy works, or sometimes doesn’t work.

Anthony Fowler: Well, it certainly is true that the people who vote are systematically unrepresentative of the people who are eligible to vote. Older, richer, whiter people are much more likely to vote than the rest of the population.

Paul Rand: With the 2020 election just around the corner, we sat down with Fowler to get an expert’s view on mail-in voting, the possibility of mobile voting, and his unusual suggestions on how to change the whole system.

Anthony Fowler: Our proposal is that there should be a legal expectation that you vote if you’re eligible, and that if you don’t vote, you should be fined.

Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago, this is Big Brains, a podcast about the pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. On this episode, voting in 2020 and beyond. I’m your host, Paul Rand.

Paul Rand: 80 million. That’s the number of mail-in ballots that Americans are expected to cast this year. It’s more than any other time in U.S. history, and it’s happening during, of course, and unprecedented pandemic.

President Trump: Universal mail-in voting is going to be catastrophic. It’s going to make our country a laughingstock all over the world.

Paul Rand: I asked Fowler to give us a fact check on the president’s unfounded claims of possible fraud through voting by mail.

Anthony Fowler: There are some risks associated with mail-in voting that are not present with our more traditional form of voting in polling locations that we’re more comfortable with, but those risks are most likely pretty minimal. There have been some researchers who have tried to track how much fraud there has been in mail elections, and yes, there have been some rare cases where in Japan, for example, a candidate running for legislature had 55 people all registered at their small home and they were all voting for that candidate and so on. These kinds of things do happen, but the risks are, I think, on the whole pretty minimal.

Paul Rand: Well, the groundwork, as we hear our president talk at least, is already being made that voting has been compromised

Donald Trump Tape: They're going to be sending out 80 million ballots, and it's Democrats. They're trying to rig this election.

Paul Rand: How do you feel that that argument will stack up, assuming he loses, that the voting was compromised is going to be something that’s going to get paid a lot of attention to?

Anthony Fowler: Well, anything the president decides to devote attention to gets attention from everyone else because what the president says and does matters a lot. It matters whether or not the American public believes our elections are trustworthy or not. That being said, I don’t have any reason now to think that we’re going to find any hard evidence that our voting was compromised in any serious way. But the simple fact that the president wants to make that argument is itself something that’s troubling for democracy because one of the most important things in a democracy is that everyone in the society respects the results of the outcome and we have peaceful transitions of power. Just the fact that the president and other important leaders make comments like that is troubling in and of itself.

Paul Rand: So fraud really isn’t an issue here, but what effect does voting by mail have on election results? A lot of people assume that voting by mail might benefit Democrats, but is that true? On his Not Another Politics Podcast, Fowler and his team looked at a major study from Stanford that holds some answers.

Anthony Fowler: Some states have gradually expanded what you might call all mail elections, where every registered voter automatically gets a ballot in the mail and voting by mail is the default option. They’ve conducted essentially a difference in differences analysis where they can see as some counties are expanding all mail elections, what happens in those counties relative to other counties that haven’t expanded it yet? One of the findings is that vote by mail seems to have fairly modest effects on participation. It does increase participation, but maybe only by one or two percentage points. They also find that it does not seem to systematically benefit one party or the other. It increases turnout by Democrats and Republicans by that similarly modest one to two percentage point finding. Perhaps contrary to a lot of concerns, maybe concerns that President Trump himself has, there’s not any clear evidence that vote by mail systematically benefits one side or the other.

Paul Rand: The part of that that really does surprise me and maybe it surprises you too, is that it doesn’t lead to a notably stronger increase in voting. Why do you think that is?

Anthony Fowler: Well, I think there’s probably a few reasons for that. It’s not obvious that all mail election will increase participation because when states implement all mail elections, they also remove in-person polling locations. If there are people who are really attached, they like going and voting in person and that’s what they’ve always done and we know that voting does have a habitual component to it, you could imagine some people who are actually demobilized by that change to all mail elections. It’s not obvious which way it would go, although it does seem to increase turnout slightly.

Paul Rand: And so, the turnout for voting, at least in the last presidential election, was about what? 60% of eligible voters in ‘16, is that right?

Anthony Fowler: That’s about right. That’s roughly, yeah. The 60% of eligible voters in a presidential race is pretty typical.

Paul Rand: And if you looked at that and I don’t know, you could have said that the last election you could have made a case it was really historical and critical. You could absolutely make the case this time. Do you think that number is going to go up and if so, why? And if not, why not?

Anthony Fowler: I don’t have any strong predictions about whether turnout is going to be higher. If anything, I might say turnout should be lower than normal because of the concerns about the pandemic, because people may not feel comfortable going out and voting in person, because there are going to be efforts to make it difficult for some people to vote by mail, etc. There’s not going to be the same level of ground campaigning that we’ve seen before. No one’s going to be knocking on your door reminding you to vote. If anything, my prediction would be that turnout might be a little bit lower than what we’ve seen in recent presidential elections.

Paul Rand: But this doesn’t have to be all bad news. Fowler says there are some side effects to mail-in voting that could actually improve our system, but first, a bit of a confession.

Paul Rand: So, here’s a confessional moment of guilt for voting for you. And I don’t know if this is going to be a alone thing, but there are plenty of times where I go in to vote and I will spend time on a certain number of the contests, and then I’m going to turn around and there is a list of judges, sanitations engineers, and others that I’ve not paid a lick of attention to. How do most people handle voting when you have such voluminous types of voting and you’re very likely, to your point, not going to be studying up on all of these? What trends do you see in that type of voting circumstances?

Anthony Fowler: Yes, absolutely. That is an interesting benefit of voting by mail is that when you get that mail ballot, you can actually take the time sitting at your kitchen table and decide who you’re going to vote for. That’s something that hasn’t been talked about much recently in this discussion about vote by mail, but that’s a nice benefit of voting by mail. I first voted by mail just this year. I thought it was really nice. I got the ballot and I said, oh, I’ve never heard of these judges. I’m going to go look them up. Whereas you might show up to the polling location and say, shoot, I didn’t even know this was on the ballot. I guess I’m not going to bother casting a vote. And there is some political science evidence suggesting that voting by mail does actually improve electoral accountability and government accountability as a result of having more informed people who take the time to figure out, is this city council member actually doing a good job or not?

Paul Rand: The biggest advantage of voting by mail though, is that it’s convenient. You don’t have to stand in line. You don’t have to take off work. You don’t have to find childcare. But you do have to go through the trouble of requesting the ballot, filling it out correctly, and of course, sending it back on time. And this leads to the obvious question, isn’t there an easier way? Why can’t we just vote on our phones? In 2018, there was one state that tried it. West Virginia.

Tape: A first of its kind mobile app is being tested in West Virginia. It is being touted as a secure, high-tech tool for absentee voting for service men and women and their families overseas.

Paul Rand: And Fowler did a study on how that affected voter participation.

Anthony Fowler: Some registered voters were allowed to vote via mobile device. They could actually download an app on their phone or their tablet, and they could cast their vote just from their phone. That does actually appear to increase participation. It also raises a bunch of security concerns that maybe would be interesting to talk about as well. I certainly wouldn’t necessarily recommend that we adopt widespread mobile voting until we do sort out those security concerns. But yes, there are people who are trying some pretty creative things to make it easier for people to vote.

Paul Rand: OK. Well, since you’ve opened that door, let’s go into it. When you talk about security concerns, what are the biggest ones that we should be most concerned about and what’s being done to address those things?

Anthony Fowler: I’m not a cybersecurity expert, but if you talk to cybersecurity experts about elections, they will tell you that their preferred voting technology is the very old school piece of paper and a pen and there’s a paper trail. You go in person, you fill it out, there’s a stack of paper. If anything goes wrong, you can always go back and count the ballots by hand. You’re not giving any bad actor some opportunity to manipulate the votes through a computer, for example. The kinds of security concerns you would have with mobile voting are, what if there really was a bad actor out there who wanted to mess things up and they managed to hack into this particular app so they could actually change people’s votes?

Anthony Fowler: Maybe they change which of the ballots actually get processed correctly or not. Maybe they change whose app is working correctly. You can imagine all kinds of ways that a bad actor could potentially manipulate the outcomes of elections if everybody was casting their votes through a phone or a mobile device. There’s no evidence that that did happen in West Virginia in 2018, but you could imagine that if everyone in the country was voting on a mobile device, the incentives would be pretty high for a bad actor to try to figure out how to hack into those systems and mess things up.

Paul Rand: It turns out paper is the best voting technology we have. Coming up, why it matters who votes and what Fowler wants to change about our election system.

Paul Rand: Coronavirus is changing life as we know it on a daily basis, but how will the pandemic permanently reshape our lives in the future? What will our world look like five years from now? COVID 2025: Our World in the Next 5 Years is a new video series featuring leading scholars at the University of Chicago. They’ll discuss how Coronavirus will change healthcare, international relations, education, and many other aspects of our lives. The series, from the same team that brings you this podcast, can be found on YouTube with new episodes released regularly.

Paul Rand: A Pew Research Center survey shows that a record number of voters say it, quote, unquote really matters who wins the White House, but who are the people casting the ballots? A big part of Anthony Fowler’s research is on voter participation.

Anthony Fowler: And so, a big interest of mine is in who votes, who doesn’t vote, what implications does it have for our election results and public policies? And the people who vote are systematically unrepresentative of the people who are eligible to vote. Older, richer, whiter people are much more likely to vote than the rest of the population, and so that does mean that the voluntary voting that we have in American society does on average seem to benefit the Republican party versus the Democratic party. If somehow we could get everyone voting, that probably would have partisan implications, and knowing about those patterns and having a sense of that is probably why a lot of Republicans tend to oppose any effort to expand the electorate or make voting easier.

Paul Rand:From purging millions of voters from the rolls, to implementing strict voter ID laws, to attempting to limit early voting, to a history of voter intimidation, to redrawing districts to benefit their party, Republicans do not have a track record of making voting easier. In fact, it’s quite the opposite according to Fowler, especially when it comes to black and Latino voters.

Anthony Fowler: There is a lot of good evidence suggesting that yes, those inequalities of participation do have very important implications. It does matter who votes and who doesn’t vote, and things would really be different if everybody voted. And if everybody voted, most likely, I think we have a lot of good research suggesting that that would in the short run benefit the Democratic party.

Paul Rand: Again, presidential elections turn out only about 60% of the voting age population.

Anthony Fowler: And that’s not a very easy problem to fix. You’re not going to get everybody voting just by sending everybody a mail ballot, just by having early voting or weekend voting or a holiday or something like that. Those problems are much harder to solve. The other part of it is that even when voting is very, very low cost, even when we make it really easy, there are still plenty of people who don’t find it worthwhile to do it because what are the odds that my one vote is going to be pivotal in some large-scale election?

Paul Rand: I guess the question is: What does pivotal mean in this case?

Anthony Fowler: It’s a little bit tricky to think about it, but pivotal would literally mean in this case if I show up and vote for my preferred candidate, my preferred candidate wins, and if I didn’t show up and vote, then the other candidate would win. That would be a rationale for voting. That would be a very clear, instrumental reason for voting, and the chances of that being the case, of course you’ll never know ex-ante whether your vote would be pivotal, but ex-ante the chances of that’s going to be the case is some extremely low number.

Paul Rand: Okay. And so, I think I’m hearing you right, but I want to go back and just state it because having a voting expert say, it’s clear that your vote just doesn’t matter, which I think is where you’re going on this, is that accurate? And if that’s the case, then why does anybody vote?

Anthony Fowler: Yes. It’s true that at the individual level, your vote is not likely to matter. In the aggregate, everyone’s voting behavior matters a ton. So, there is this collective action problem where we as a group of like-minded people who have shared interests would all be better off if everybody voted, if we could all make sure we commit ourselves to voting.

Paul Rand: So how do we solve this problem? This year, Fowler was part of a working group convened by the Brookings Institution in Harvard. He and nearly 30 other researchers published a report recommending something that might seem a bit unusual, making it illegal not to vote.

Anthony Fowler: We wrote a report that essentially advocates for compulsory voting in the United States. We argue that voting should be thought of as a civic duty, should be an expectation of citizenship, just like paying your taxes, just like disposing of your trash properly. And one of the motivations for that is that the people who vote in our elections are so unrepresentative of the eligible population and we haven’t found any good ways of correcting that problem other than something like a strong financial incentive. And so, our proposal is there should be a legal expectation that you vote if you’re eligible, and that if you don’t vote, you should be fined. We don’t think that fine should be so costly that it’s putting people into poverty, but we think a small fine on the order of $20 would be very good for both improving representation, improving participation without overburdening citizens.

Paul Rand: And are there places otherwise in other global democracies where you’re seeing that happen with some degree of success?

Anthony Fowler: There are. There are plenty of other countries that have some kind of compulsory voting policy. One of the countries that does it well is Australia where they achieve more than 90% participation in virtually every federal and state election, and they do it through a fine, just like I described, a fine roughly on the order of $20. And they’ve been doing it for a long time and I’ve done some research on Australia and shown that when they first implemented this policy, they did dramatically increase participation, as you would expect, and it did change electoral and policy outcomes. You had working class voters who were previously underrepresented who now all of a sudden show up to vote, they change which kinds of candidates get elected, and they change which kinds of policies get it.

Paul Rand: In total, there are 24 countries around the world with some form of compulsory voting. And while the laws aren’t always strictly enforced, research does show that they can dramatically impact turnout.

Anthony Fowler: We’ve tried a lot of ways to improve access to elections, improve participation, make things run better, and I think compulsory voting would be one of the best things we could do to create that strong incentive. We often don’t have the resources to make voting easy. Some people do have to wait two hours in line to vote. And if voting was compulsory, if you were going to be fined for not voting, then all of a sudden those people who are waiting two hours in line, not only are they mad because they’re not voting, they’re mad because they could get fined as well. And so, I think you just get more public pressure, you get more widespread understanding that voting is a civic duty. It’s not a privilege or a benefit I’m offering you. It’s something that everyone should do and we have to make it as easy as possible. Just like the IRS can’t make it really difficult for you to file your taxes, otherwise you would have pandemonium in the streets. I think compulsory voting would be one way of actually improving the way elections are run.

Paul Rand: Well, the ease of filing taxes is debatable, but that’s an argument for another episode. I asked if Fowler had other ideas to change the way elections run.

Anthony Fowler: I would also want to make it as easy for people to vote as possible. That would include automatically registering people who were eligible to vote, and then we can talk about all kinds of interesting ways in which we could change our voting system to make potentially fair, more equitable, better outcomes. The Electoral College is something that obviously is debated a lot. I can’t think of any good reason to have the Electoral College. And we could talk about, is that actually a feasible thing? Could you actually change the Electoral College? That would be pretty hard.

Paul Rand: Yeah, what makes it so hard?

Anthony Fowler: Well, there are a few ways you could think about changing the Electoral College, getting rid of the Electoral College. The main way that people would think of would be a constitutional amendment and that’s not going to happen because you would need three fourths of the states actually sign on and states benefit from the Electoral College. If you are a swing state or if you are a smaller state, then you probably like the Electoral College because swing states get more attention from presidential candidates. Their effective influence is greater. And then small states, their votes essentially count more than big states. Each voter in Wyoming roughly gets three times the weight as a voter in California, so Wyoming likes the Electrical College and California doesn’t. So you’re not going to get three fourths of states to actually sign on and get rid of this thing that is benefiting a lot of them.

Anthony Fowler: There’s also some reason to think that at least in recent years, the Electoral College benefits the Republican party more so than the Democratic Party, partly because smaller states tend to lean Republican now. That could certainly change. That hasn’t always been the case and that could certainly change in the future, but at the moment, the way the Electoral College shakes out, it looks like it gives a little bit of a benefit to the Republican party. And so, a lot of strong Republican states and a lot of Republican leaders are not going to want to get rid of the Electoral College either. I think a constitutional amendment is essentially off the table, but there are some other clever, indirect ways you could imagine getting rid of the Electoral College and one of them is actually making its way through the state legislatures right now.

Anthony Fowler: There’s this national vote project where essentially every state could allocate the electors however they want. So, Illinois has the right to allocate their electors in whatever way they deem appropriate, and Illinois could just decide, we’re going to give all of our electors, instead of giving them to whoever wins Illinois, we could give all of our electors to whoever wins the national popular vote. And you could imagine that if enough states passed that policy, if the states that passed that policy have enough electoral votes all between them to guarantee that whoever wins the national popular vote wins the election, then effectively we’ve gotten rid of the Electoral College indirectly by some big states doing it.

Paul Rand: Doing away with the Electoral College would mean relying on the national vote, but Fowler has one last idea for you to consider.

Anthony Fowler: The other thing that you could certainly change about our political system, there are a lot of undesirable features of a first past the post plurality rule system.

Paul Rand: The first past the post plurality system. You might be asking yourself what that is. Well, it’s essentially how our election works right now. Each voter is allowed to vote for only one candidate and that candidate who polls the most wins. Simple enough, right? But what if you wanted to vote for a third party? Well, think back to the presidential election 20 years ago.

Anthony Fowler: And a lot of people argue this is essentially what happened in 2000 where Bush was actually not preferred by the electorate over Gore, and yet won anyway because a lot of people voted for Nader.

Paul Rand: The theory goes that the people who voted for Nader likely preferred Gore over Bush, but because they voted third party, Bush benefited from their votes. Fowler says this leads to a lot of strategic voting. Rather than voting for whom they want to win, people end up voting based on who has the best chances of beating the candidate they like the least, and so we end up with the two party system.

Anthony Fowler: And so that’s a problem. That’s a very hard problem to solve, but there are certainly creative ways you could try to solve that kind of problem. One of the creative solutions I’ve seen was developed by Eric Maskin and he essentially proposed we would rank all the candidates. You’d show up to vote and you would give your full ranking of candidates. And then the way we would determine the winner is that we would look at the head-to-head matchup between every pair of candidates. We’d say, okay, as between Nader and Gore, which one do people prefer? What about between Gore and Bush? And what about between Bush and Nader? We would do all of those head-to-head match ups, and then if any candidate beats all the other candidates in a head to head match up, that’ll be the winner.

Paul Rand: A system like that would ensure that even if you want to vote for a third party, you don’t have to worry about your vote going to the candidate you like the least. If they lost, your vote would go to the candidate you like next best. You could also have more than three parties, so voters would have more opportunities vote for candidates they actually like. And yet.

Anthony Fowler: The problem with that system is that it’s not guaranteed to produce a winner. There could actually be a cycle where Gore beats Bush and Bush beats Nader and Nader beats Gore. Practically, it’d be pretty unlikely, but it is possible. There’s no perfect voting system by any means. This goes back to something we call Arrow’s Law. There’s no voting system that’s going to do everything you want it to do, but that doesn’t mean that the system we have is the best one.

Matt Hodapp: Big Brains is a production of the UChicago Podcast Network. If you like what you heard, please give us a review and a rating. The show is hosted by Paul M. Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp, with assistance from Alyssa Eads. Thanks for listening.

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