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WNIJ's summary of news items around our state.

NIU Faculty Weigh In On Post-Election Ponderings

Northern Illinois University

Election Day may be over, but there is plenty to talk about before the inauguration. 

Voters are still glued to their screens to find out who will lead the nation…and what the final vote has to say about how a politically divided country will move forward.

That’s behind the timing of a virtual panel Thursday night. Experts from Northern Illinois University’s colleges of Law and Political Science took questions from the community about different election-related subjects. 

Chief among them was the electoral college. Political Science professor Scot Schraufnagel commented on whether it’s still relevant. 

“A lot of countries have copied our system of democracy. People have copied bicameralism and an independent judiciary and lots of things about the way we do it," he said. "But nobody copies our electoral college. For some reason, that’s something that they pass up.”

Other professors chimed in on how the system was tied to getting states to come together in a union, when each state wanted to keep degrees of power to themselves.  Law professor Robert Jones said in his opinion, the electoral college, and by extension, the Senate, is archaic if one thinks of the U.S. as a single nation-state.

“But if you think of us more in terms of being separate sovereign states, then like the U.N., it makes sense that Wyoming would have as much power in the Senate as California.” 

That in turn prompted questions about whether the electoral college reflects a true popular vote. Political Science Professor Mitch Pickerill said the quest for winning a state’s electors distorts how candidates campaign for votes in the first place.

“There’s no use to try to get Republicans to turn out in Illinois when you know you can’t win the electoral votes there anyway, and resources, money, time are precious during a campaign," he said. "So to a certain extent, we don’t know what the true popular vote is, because candidates are focused on winning the electoral college.” 

To abolish the electoral college entirely would require a constitutional amendment. One question asked about allotting these votes proportionally like Maine and Nebraska. Political Science Professor April Clark said this could have unintended consequences.

“The problem with that is if we do these electoral votes based on congressional districts, what you’re going to get is gerrymandering on steroids, because there’s going to be an increased incentive for the redrawing of district lines to a partisan advantage.” 

Besides the electoral college, questions came up on what sorts of court challenges there could be as the votes came in.  Law Professor Marc Falkoff said campaigns need to reach what is called a “margin of litigation,” showing that such a challenge would actually be enough to make a difference.

“Otherwise, at the end of the day, the campaign is going to drop the case, and the justices are not going to expend their political capital or credibility in deciding the matter. It has to be meaningful.” 

And then there were questions about the disparity between polls and the actual votes. Clark said national polls were generally accurate, but in 2016, state polls underestimated support for President Trump, including voters known as “shy Trumpers.”  

“People who intended to vote for Trump had a certain level of discomfort telling pollsters that they were going to vote for him.” 

Clark added that media could do a better job explaining a poll’s margin of error.

“So if Biden is projected to have 51% of the votes, then his support is really somewhere between 48 and 54, because it’s this range of six percentage points.”  

In those two cases, either candidate could have enough support to win. 

The discussion continued with other topics, such as the historical precedent behind certain electoral rules, the effects of race and gender on the race, and the obstacles to third parties in the United States.  But at the end, all the professors agreed that the last thing people should do, especially students, is tune out of politics altogether. Jones explained.

“If too many people check out, too many people who are in a position to make a difference check out, that’s the biggest threat to a democracy more than any single individual at the end of the day.” 

How that will pan out as the election draws to close remains to be seen.