The 2020 U.S. election, issues and challenges

From addressing how to vote safely during a pandemic to tackling disinformation and misinformation on social media, Stanford scholars examine the issues and uncertainties facing American voters as they cast their ballot in November’s general election.

This November, Americans are casting their ballot amid turmoil and uncertainty: a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic; a summer of civil unrest and a racial reckoning; disinformation and conspiracy theories muddying the media landscape; an economy rebounding in spurts; record-shattering weather and climate disasters.

Stanford research intersects with many of these issues that are troubling the nation and the world at large. From across the social and political sciences, humanities, science and medicine, scholars are applying their expertise to better understand how people, policy and democratic processes can come together to address them.

As Stanford political scientist Condoleezza Rice recently pointed out , while democracy "is hard," it inspires change in a way that aligns itself to human dignity.

"I think if each and every one of us recognizes that democracy is not a spectator sport and that you have to commit yourself to being willing to play your own role, then the aggregated roles will come to mean something," added Rice, director of Stanford’s Hoover Institution , who spoke at a session of Democracy Matters: Challenges Facing Democracy in the U.S., an ongoing webinar series that highlights challenges to democracy in the U.S. and around the world.

Here, Stanford scholars share what democracy and political change look like in the U.S. today, how to understand the attitudes of the American electorate, and the challenges posed to democratic processes, from the impact of the pandemic to political messaging.

Through their research and studies, Stanford scholars have closely examined public policies and regulations related to issues that are being debated on the campaign trail - from how to deal with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic to the devastating consequences of wildfires, for example. As their research shows, these are complex problems that require coordinated responses.

For example, when it comes to implementing policy to mitigate the heightened risk of wildfires in the American West, Stanford Law Professor Deborah Sivas says that implementing change requires balancing incentives.

"Unfortunately, we really don’t have the right combination of public and private incentives and regulations - carrots and sticks, if you will - in place. We are geared up to fight wildfires like we fight wars, with heavy machinery and manpower," said Sivas , director of Stanford’s Environmental Law Clinic and the Environmental and Natural Resources Law and Policy Program.

Similarly, dealing with the economic consequences from the COVID-19 pandemic will also demand a coordinated approach. "Minimizing the damage requires a similar combination of policies: better coordinating disease containment to minimize lost production, identifying critical links in production chains and ensuring that they don’t break and cause cascading failures of companies, and stepping in to fill the gap in lending caused by the growing credit freeze," said Stanford economist Matthew Jackson.

Amid these extraordinary times of unprecedented global change, here is how Stanford scholarship might inform some of the problems facing the country and the challenges surrounding governance and policymaking today.

As millions of Americans prepare to cast their ballots in November’s election, some Stanford researchers have examined what inspires voters and why they might vote a certain way.

According to research by Stanford political scientist Jonathan Rodden , for example, to understand how Americans vote, one needs to look at where they live. His research shows that ever since President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, the Democratic Party has evolved to become an almost exclusively urban party. The geographic distribution of Democrats and Republicans has turned political campaigns into high-stakes battles in which the parties pit urban against rural interests, Rodden said.

Meanwhile, Sarah A. Soule at Stanford Graduate School of Business found that political protests have the power to influence the final outcome of an election. Her research revealed that on both sides of the political spectrum, protest mobilizes political engagement by raising awareness of an issue to voters and educating them about a particular problem. She and her colleague, Daniel Q. Gillion at the University of Pennsylvania, also found that protest can be a cue to incumbent challengers about when to enter a race.

"Our work suggests that citizens filter the information provided by protest through their own ideological prisms and that they use this information to inform their voting in much the same way that individuals’ level of political engagement is shaped by their social context," Soule and Gillion wrote.

Here is what Rodden’s and Soule’s scholarship, as well as several others, reveal about what brings voters together and what sets them apart.

Concerns about the impact of fake news, disinformation and misinformation across social media platforms and in news outlets are more relevant now than ever before. Even after the findings emerged from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, questions linger about vulnerabilities in the democratic process and the influence of modern technology.

"We know more than ever before about what happened in the 2016 election. Now we need to pivot to what needs to be done to prevent it in the future - from concrete legislative acts as well as steps that online platforms can take even without legislation," said political scientist Michael McFaul. Joined by other scholars across Stanford, McFaul has been looking at various ways to protect the integrity of American elections.

Meanwhile, others have examined the impacts technology, media and political messaging have on the democratic process.

"Democracy cannot function without communication," communication scholar Jon Krosnick said. "In order for voters to make informed choices among candidates, the voters must learn about the candidates’ policy positions, track records, personalities, past experience and much more."

Here is what some of their scholarship reveals about the current media landscape and some of the challenges technology may pose to democratic processes.