Happy Election Day!

As political scientists here at the MIT Election Lab, we are really social scientists. We work with many others to understand what’s happening. We aim to help the public by being a fact-based center of election analysis, in the midst of what might be a foggy information environment.

As political scientists here at the MIT Election Lab, we are really social scientists. We work with many others to understand what’s happening. We aim to help the public by being a fact-based center of election analysis, in the midst of what might be a foggy information environment.

Today, we are watching and observing the 2020 U.S. election unfold — likely, we’re focused on some of the same things you’ve been thinking about. We are interested in the effects of COVID-19 on the processes of this year’s election, and have been following the differences for voters and election administrators alike. We’re also watching for the same things that we follow on any election night: how is election administration going in each state, and where there might be evidence of pain points and problems.

For many of our insights thus far, you’ll want to point your footsteps toward the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, where much of our analysis of the early voting and mail voting trends we’ve seen is housed.



Today, we’re collaborating with others as much as possible.

We have a team of political scientists and other academics from around the country who will be actively involved in our “Election Boiler Room” today. They are working together to follow the election and share insights as news reports come through, focusing on where unusual behavior might arise and what could be causing or used to resolve it.

In providing this hub, we’re opening a space for these experts to collaborate in real-time on Election Day, sharing data and important information to address any concerns or issues that come up. The experts involved in the Boiler Room are old hands at following elections and election administration; many of them are in regular communication with journalists and others in their home localities. All of them are trying to understand election results as they come out, and to make sense of those results for others in an informed way.

Providing a crucial underpinning for that work, is a team of student researchers who are pulling data for particular states, especially those that are traditionally considered battleground states. These students, who have been providing much of the research for the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, will be pulling election results all evening to inform the Boiler Room experts as we watch races around the country unfold.

We hope to share insights on many specific questions.

As the day unfolds and we track emerging data, we will be looking for answers to some specific questions.

What administration issues did we see in this election?

When looking at administration issues during and after an election, we always ask a few questions:

  • what is the nature of the problem?
  • what seems to be the cause?
  • what effect is observable?

If there are observable anomalies this year, we’ll be focusing there: for example, looking at odd election returns, mismatches between election results and turn out reports, charges of fraud, charges of irregularities, etc.

How close were the results?

We‘ll also be studying how the election returns in 2020 are different from 2016. What’s the share between Trump and Biden this year compared to the share between Trump and Clinton in 2016?

That will really be what we’re laser focused on to get a sense about. Is this a good night for Trump, or is this a good night for Biden, or is it going to be too close to call? We will be looking at state by state differences as the night goes on.

What happened to the balance of power in the Senate?

We’ll look at the Senate races happening around the country, which have lost a lot of attention compared to the presidential race.

One thing we’re interested in following is how well newer incumbents do this year. It’s important to keep in mind, when looking at the election results for 2020, that we have a big collection of rookie senators who were elected in 2014 (which was a good year for Republicans, as well as a particularly low-turnout midterm election,) who are now running for re-election for the first time. It’s an opportunity for us to look at differences between election returns in 2020 versus 2014, and see whether any of those senators who might have gotten a particular boost in 2014 were particularly vulnerable in 2020 with a different sort of electorate.

What happened in the battleground states?

We are focusing on about eight battleground states, looking at election results on a regular basis, and plan to compare those on a county by county basis with how things looked in 2016. We have to be sensitive to the fact that the election results will be coming in slowly. As always, we’ll be focusing on the data coming from the states themselves, and will be publishing our analyses over the weeks and months to come.

Are there demographic similarities 2016 vs. 2020?

Once we do get more or less a full set of results from particular counties, we should be able to have a sense about which direction the election is running. Because of that comparison, we’ll be ready to analyze shifts from 2016 to 2020 in terms of demographic factors that we have data for.

When looking at the data, we will be asking: are there urban and rural differences? What about factors such as education level, economic health, race, or gender?

For instance, if we discover that the suburbs around Philadelphia have reportedly counted their ballots quickly, we can compare with what we know about how those election returns look like compared to 2016. How many people have turned out to vote this year compared to past years?

Was there a delay in counting ballots?

We will be documenting how quickly the ballots are counted to see whether counting votes really were as delayed as people thought they would be.

Ballot counting speed varies for every state based on its own policies and how its administration processes and counts ballots. We looked at this very question in 2016, and not as comprehensively as we’re going to do it this time.

Where can people get more trustworthy information? (Follow us!)

Anyone following the 2020 election should be looking to trusted sources for information or resources on Election Day and throughout the week. We’ll be communicating what we learn and understand, contributing to an informed conversation about this election and election management more generally.

Find more about our work, and look at data from past elections on our website.

Learn more about the 2020 election at the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project website, or follow their tweets here.

Claire DeSoi is the communications director for the MIT Election Data + Science Lab.

Topics Election Policy

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