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UB experts debate voter disenfranchisement, political and racial divide

The tightly contested 2020 U.S. presidential election has put Americans from all backgrounds on edge. University at Buffalo professors illustrated that Wednesday, as they discussed the racial divide and the impact it’s had locally and nationally. WBFO’s Nick Lippa reports.

A day after Tuesday’s election, on a Zoom conference call with local media members discussing the results, professors James Campbell and Henry Taylor, along with three of their colleagues, shared different viewpoints of today’s political climate. 


“One of the worst things that happened in this very ugly election, was the media basically siding with the democrats against Trump and the republicans,” said Campbell, a political science professor. 


“One of the interesting things about this election is that, the right wing media, Fox, the conservative folks, they’ve had one set of news,” said Taylor, an urban and regional planning professor. 


The news is too far left. 

The news is too far right. 


Political discourse like this is relatable for friends, families, and coworkers all across the country. Especially in a county like Erie, where American Studies professor Kari Winter said the region is a microcosm.


“I don't see this as a red or red leaning county so much as a very mixed county that reflects the wider divisions of the country,” said Winter.


Election night voting in Erie County had Donald Trump receiving about 25,000 more votes than Joe Biden in the presidential election. However, with early voting eventually counted, Biden pulled ahead by about five percent. 


Campbell said there’s a lot of adamant Trump supporters in Western New York and that part of the divide comes from them being mischaracterized.


“And I don’t think it’s either supportive or useful to characterize the other side the way it has been done here,” Campbell said. 


That prompted this response from Taylor.


“I think we want to hide the ugliness that we are speaking with. And I think that Trump has revealed that side. I think it’s no accident the efforts to suppress the vote,” Taylor said.


As Taylor was making his point, Campbell interrupted attempting to make a counterpoint, leading to a heated exchange. 


Taylor: You have to be willing to look at that ugliness and what that ugliness means.

Campbell: I think that---

Taylor: Will you let me finish Jim? My name is Henry Taylor. Do not interrupt me. 

Campbell: Go ahead (laughing)

Taylor: Do not interrupt me.

Campbell: I’m not interrupting yo--

Taylor: Do not interrupt me. 

Campbell: Talk about ugly--

Taylor: Do not interrupt me. Let me finish and then you speak. This is the kind of stuff that I’m talking about. This is the kind of stuff that I'm talking about. And, and this blatant disregard for race, and I think that this is a part of the kind of particular forces that the Trump administration has unleashed. I don't expect that intensity to play out anywhere like that at the local levels. But I think it reflects the deep divide that exists inside this country. And I think the intensity of that divide is something that we will have to deal with going forward.


This being on Zoom, it’s important to note a back and forth discussion can be harder to have when you are not in the same room. And the discussion outside of this heated moment was civil. 


But the disagreement between professors regarding race was apparent as the conversation turned to disenfranchised voters. Campbell said making ballot access easier for people may have called into question the integrity of the election.


“In terms of disenfranchisement, to me, that’s utterly nonsense,” Campbell said. “Turnout is gonna go through the roof in this election. Nobody was disenfranchised.”


Taylor disagreed, citing challenges for those trying to mail their vote in and voter intimidation that took place in other parts of the country.


“The fact that prisoners and those with former records in many places can’t even vote, I think disenfranchisement is an issue,” Taylor said.


Later in the conversation, Winter added that large turnout doesn’t mean disenfranchisement isn’t happening.


“Can voter turnout and voter suppression exist simultaneously? I think we can look very factually just at Trump's speech last night, where he declared victory, and suggested that voting that counting should stop,” Winter said. 


President Donald Trump said this on election night:


“We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election (audience cheers)…so we’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 a.m. in the morning and add them to the list.”


“So I think that answers your question. It's quite blatant,” said Winter


Trump’s campaign declared victory in Pennsylvania with less than 80 percent of the vote. He’s currently suing to “temporarily halt counting until there is meaningful transparency”.


As the presidential election turns to the courts, there’s one definitive issue, local and national, these professors vocally agreed on.


“This is a deeply, deeply divided country,” said Taylor.

“It’s so evenly divided,” said Campbell.


The Zoom call discussed several other issues surrounding the election.


Political science professors agreed no matter the outcome, pollsters may be the biggest losers in this year’s election. Multiple polls had democrats performing much better than they actually did Tuesday night. 


Professor Jacob Neiheisel said pollsters fixed a lot of the problems in 2016 that stemmed from underrepresenting those with lower levels of education, but it wasn’t enough.

“But one thing that was fundamentally not fixable was I think something that's coming home to roost here, is what we could refer to as non-response bias or differential non-response, which is to say that we are pretty good at measuring preferences of the people who answer our surveys,” Neiheisel said. “And we have to make assumptions about the people who don't answer our surveys. And if those people look different, we just have no information on them.”


Neiheisel said moving forward, pollsters will have to grapple with the fact that non-responses are not random.


“It's something that is a factor that's going to continue to play the process going forward,” he said. “And I think might force us to fundamentally rethink how we look at polling and how we look at survey research”


Initial polls in New York’s 23rd and 27th congressional districts had Democrats keeping re-match races closer than the results have shown. Republican representatives Tom Reed and Chris Jacobs appear to have won by more this year than they did in their prior elections.


Neiheisel said Erie County isn’t red or even pink county yet. There’s still lots of votes to be counted in addition to the early voting that helped Democrats maintain a lead in the presidential election.


“My county very near where I grew up. Mahoning County, which contains the city of Youngstown, went red for the first time in a very long time in 2020,” he said. “So clearly there are some demographic changes going on in Rust Belt cities.”       


Campbell said this election shows Erie County is evenly divided.


“I think a lot of people with good intentions were opposing Trump. And this was, in some ways a referendum about President Trump, and indicates how sharply polarized we are as a nation.”


Democrats fared well in a few state races throughout Erie, including Sean Ryan picking up a state senate seat in Chris Jacobs’ old district.


Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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