The 2020 federal election was an extraordinarily riveting moment in United States history, and the dust from Election Day has not yet entirely settled. To help shed light on what just transpired and its implications for democracy in this country, we turned to University of Tulsa political science alumnus Richard W. Soudriette (B.A. ’75), an expert in domestic and global elections.
Among his impressive accomplishments and impacts, Soudriette was the founding president of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, serving as that group’s president from 1988 to 2007. In 1991, Soudriette was a founder of the Association of European Election Officials and he has been instrumental in establishing regional election networks in Asia, Africa and Latin America. From 2013 to 2018, Soudriette served as chairman of the SGO Smartmatic International Elections Advisory Council, and he was president of the Center for Diplomacy and Democracy in Colorado Springs from 2009 to 2015. In 1998, he was a founder of the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network and, in 1999, of the Global Election Organization Conference.
Today, Soudriette resides in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. From that base, he regularly consults on democracy, elections, voting technology, testing and international development. He also serves as an adviser for the University of Gothenburg on the annual Varieties of Democracy survey. Soudriette’s most recent visit to Tulsa was in 2013, during which time he lectured at TU on international elections and addressed the Tulsa Committee on Foreign Relations.
Thinking about the presidential and congressional campaigns that led up to Nov. 3, 2020, what are your overall insights and impressions?
The United States has seen two success stories during the 2020 elections. The first is the greatest voter turnout in 50 years, with 62% of eligible voters participating, despite the threat of COVID-19. The second major success has been the incredible professionalism of election administrators across the country in nimbly adapting and organizing safe and credible elections during the pandemic.
What two or three moments from the 2020 campaign season captured your attention most forcefully, and why?
An amazing result of the 2020 election has been the massive early voting. In-person and mail-in voting have seen the largest number of early votes cast in any U.S. election. The other big takeaway from the 2020 elections was that, despite dire predictions of chaos on election day, the process worked very smoothly, and voters and election workers demonstrated their determination to make it a celebration of democracy.
How would you compare and contrast the Republican and Democrat approaches to campaigning and messaging?
Democrats focused on COVID-19, the economy, health and racial justice. Republicans talked about law and order, the economy and the threat of violence in the streets. In particular, President Trump claimed that he personally, and his administration, had done a great job in defeating the coronavirus.
Mail-in voting, absentee voting, long lines at polling stations for advance and on-the-day voting: What did you see in those moments that drew your attention?
A striking aspect of the 2020 election was that by Election Day the voter participation numbers equaled more than 60% of the total number of voters in the 2016 election. President Trump’s concerns about fraud and mail-in voting produced two results. Many Republicans waited to vote until election day fearing vote fraud and Democrats turned out in massive numbers to vote in person during the early voting period because they feared their votes would not be counted.
When you compare the 2016 federal election to 2020, what similarities and differences stand out for you?
In 2016, Donald Trump was considered the “Washington outsider” and Hillary Clinton embodied the “Washington establishment.” Trump was able to appeal to many of the traditional Democratic constituencies, such as labor. Also, in 2016 many African American voters stayed home and didn’t vote. While this year Trump appears to have some support among African Americans and other minorities, the Biden-Harris ticket racked up big majorities from African Americans and other minority communities. A big difference from four years ago is that COVID-19 was not the looming factor that it certainly was in 2020.
How does the U.S. electoral system compare to systems you have observed elsewhere in the world?
The biggest difference from other democracies is that the U.S. elects the president and vice president by a combination of popular vote and the Electoral College. Popular votes are tabulated according to each state. Electoral votes are apportioned according to the vote totals in each state and, of the current 538 electors, a majority of 270 electoral votes are required to elect a president and vice president. Most countries elect their leaders only through direct popular vote. The Electoral College gives small states a greater voice in determining the president and, since there are more small states than large ones, it is doubtful this system will change in the foreseeable future.
Should Americans be concerned about the integrity of their electoral system? Can we fully trust the results of the Nov. 3 vote?
The U.S. has a decentralized election system. All elections are conducted by more than 25,000 state and local election officials. Their work is governed by each state’s election laws. Documented cases of vote fraud are rare in this country. In the 2020 election, there has been no evidence of massive voter fraud.
The reason that vote counting is taking longer in many states is because of the heavy volume of mail-in ballots. Postal ballots take extra time to open, verify and count. The delays experienced in 2020 in states such as Pennsylvania and Nevada is not an indication of criminality; they are due to the massive level of voter participation. Thirty-nine states now offer voters the option of voting by mail, and most still also offer the possibility for in-person voting.
Are there modifications or improvements that you would recommend for future U.S. state and national elections?
Unsubstantiated charges of massive vote fraud are undermining the faith of the electorate in the credibility of our elections. This credibility is the bedrock of American democracy. The claims of vote fraud and vote rigging based on rumor and flimsy anecdotal information are doing massive damage to faith in American democracy.
Once heated passions have cooled, it might be time for a truly bipartisan effort to examine the U.S. election process to see where improvements might be made. All Americans should have confidence that every vote will count, and every voice will be heard.
If the 2020 U.S. election proved anything, it’s that political science is anything but dull. At TU, you’ll find a political science program that sharpens your mind and prepares you for an array of careers in law, government, teaching, lobbying, the intelligence services, international development and more fascinating fields.