The Miracle and Tragedy of the 2020 Election

31 Pages Posted: 25 Feb 2021

See all articles by Nathaniel Persily

Nathaniel Persily

Stanford Law School

Charles Stewart III

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Political Science

Date Written: February 22, 2021


The 2020 election was both a miracle and a tragedy. In the midst of a pandemic, election administrators pulled off a safe, secure, and professional election. Still, lies of voter fraud have cemented in the minds of tens of millions of Americans that the election was rigged.

As the first wave of the pandemic overtook the nation right as the presidential election season was beginning, most states responded by delaying their primaries and maximizing opportunities to vote by mail. We review how the quick actions of many states led to salvaging of the primary season, but also led to two cautionary tales, from Wisconsin and New York, that illustrated the disasters that could befall both mail and in-person voters if the nation did not act quickly. We recount the combination of actions taken by governors, state legislators, health officials, judges, and civil society to adapt election administration to the exigent realities of the pandemic and to cope with the logistical challenges state and local election officials faced.

We discuss metrics of success in the adaptations that took place — record-high turnout, widespread voter satisfaction, a doubling of mail voting without a concomitant increase in problems often associated with absentee ballots, and the recruitment of hundreds of thousands of new poll workers. We also explore how the competing narrative of dysfunction and a “stolen election,” propagated by President Trump and his supporters, led not only to the insurrection at the Capitol on January 1, but also to a historically deep chasm at the mass level between partisans in their trust of the election process and outcome. We conclude by noting that many states will be considering legislation that re-litigates the election by addressing non-problems, rather than building on the triumphs of the election.

Keywords: 2020 election, election administration, absentee voting, mail voting, voter confidence, voter trust

Suggested Citation

Persily, Nathaniel and Stewart III, Charles, The Miracle and Tragedy of the 2020 Election (February 22, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

Nathaniel Persily

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305
United States
9175703223 (Phone)

Charles Stewart III (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Political Science ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
United States

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