How mail-in ballots could affect the 2020 election | Interview with Dr. Henry Brady

How mail-in ballots could affect the 2020 election | Interview with Dr. Henry Brady

We met with University of California, Berkeley’s highly influential political scientist, Dr. Henry E. Brady to talk about the importance of data science in politics, voting systems, and so much more. Enjoy!

Political science expert Dr. Henry E. Brady shares insights into the final days of the Soviet Union, voting systems (including the infamous 2000 Bush/Gore election ballots in Florida), the importance of data science in politics, an the controversy over mail-in ballots in the 2020 election. Class of 1941 Monroe Deutsch Professor of Political Science & Public Policy and Dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy for the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Brady dialogues with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

Absolutely no reason why we couldn't have an absolutely bulletproof mail voting system in America, especially if we'd started two or three months ago. There's just no reason why we couldn't.” – Dr. Henry Brady

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Interview with Political Scientist
Dr. Henry Brady

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:15A little background

Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko from and Wake Forest University. And we have a very special guest today. We have Professor Henry Brady, who is also the dean, so Dean Brady…

…can you tell us a little bit about how you got into the career that you’re in now?

Henry Brady: Sure. I was in high school in the early ’60s, and I wanted to become a rocket scientist. So I actually went to a small undergraduate college called Harvey Mudd College. I took Math and Physics, and the notion was I was gonna go on to be a physicist or a rocket scientist. And I even worked in that area for a little while at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California dealing with, in fact, various trajectory issues having to do with rockets and satellites. But then along came the late ’60s and the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement of that era, and that got me very involved with politics because I was very concerned about the state of America, the state of race relations in America, the state of the Vietnam War, which I felt was an immoral and wrong war.

And so actually, after four years of undergraduate school with Math and Physics, I went to a theological seminary for a year to try to figure out sort of how I felt ethically and morally about the world. I just felt my education had been lacking in that regard. And I realized that becoming a minister was probably not something I wanted to do, but I did want to do something that was helping people, and that also understood better how society is operated.

And so then after four years of working in Washington, I was very lucky to have a succession of great jobs. I worked at the National Science Foundation, the Office of Management Budget. I lobbied for new towns which were things like Columbia and Maryland and Reston, Virginia. And after doing that, I decided to go back to graduate school, and I went back at MIT, and I ended up getting two PhDs. One in Political Science and one in Economics, and that was my attempt to try to figure out how societies work and how they make mistakes, like I thought the Vietnam War was a mistake. I thought that the Civil Rights Movement was trying to right a historic wrong, which is the original sin of slavery in America and the mess that’s put us in for hundreds of years. And so that was my attempt to do that. And as a result of that, I got a PhD and then eventually got an academic job, and then I went on to do research and work in that area.

Jed: Very cool. Wow.

From MIT, where you got your two PhDs, which was your first academic job and was there a little space between when you got your PhD when you got your first academic job?

Henry: Well, actually, while I was in graduate school, my parents were in financial trouble. My father had lost his job in the late ’60s, and by the time I got to graduate school, they needed money. So I actually would go to school for six months and work then for six months so I could make money to give to my parents and help them. And then as I did that, I got a job at Boston University in Boston as one way to help support myself and my parents. And then eventually after... Before actually I got my PhD, I got a job at the University of California, Berkeley.

And so that was my first job. Unfortunately, because I in fact was a very slow starter, and that was partly because I had spent a lot of my graduate career trying to work and support my parents, I ended up being in a situation where I was not gonna get tenure at Berkeley, so I had to leave Berkeley in 1984 and go to another job.

I was very lucky, I got a job at Harvard, it was an untenured assistant professorship and it didn’t pay very well, but it was Harvard and I was very lucky with that, exceptionally lucky. And then things started going my way, I started getting publications and doing the things that academics have to do to get forward in the world. I went to the University of Chicago where I got tenure, and then Berkeley decided that they wanted me back, which was very kind of them.

Jed: Well, that’s good. [chuckle]

Henry: And I get... Well, I’ve been a loser. I failed. At the first round at Berkeley, I’d been a failure. There’s just no other way to describe it. And so then I went back to Berkeley in 1990 and I’ve been here ever since.

04:35Since being back at Berkeley

Jed: Wow. Well, that’s really, really cool.

So what have you been doing at Berkeley in terms of your research? What area of political science, and do you get to throw in some economics too into what you’re doing?

Henry: Well actually, I was lucky because I had the math and physics background and the economics background, that gave me a set of skills that very few people had in political science during the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s, and those were skills to do statistical work and mathematical modeling. So a lot of my work was using large data sets. Before data science became a popular term, in fact, before it actually even existed, I was doing what amounted to [inaudible] work, which was doing large surveys often linking them to administrative data and trying to understand people’s behavior based upon that research. So that’s the kind of work I did, and it was very much informed by my background in math and physics, my economics training, and the fact that I was just very interested in numerical and quantitative techniques to studying society. So I was just, again, very lucky in the end that I had that kind of leg up.

Jed: Wow, that’s cool. Now tell us what your statistical and big data analysis have shown you over these years.

You’ve been doing it for a long time, so what areas have you gone into?

Henry: Well in the areas I’ve worked... I’ve been very lucky again, ’cause I’ve been all over the world doing research. I was lucky enough, for example, to be in the Kremlin in 1991 on December 23rd. And two days later, the Soviet Union, which had historically been this enormous country that had an enormous impact on America and on the world. It was two days before the Soviet Union actually was ended by Gorbachev, Mikhail Gorbachev getting on television and indicating that the Soviet Union was no more.

And so I was doing research on the Soviet Union at that time, it was still the Soviet Union. I have one of the last pictures of the hammer and sickle, the flag of the Soviet Union flying over the Kremlin. That day, me and my collaborator were really surprised to see all of these limousines called ZiLs going in and out of the Kremlin, and we both remarked that, "Gee, something must be going on." Well, what was going on was the decision to essentially end the Soviet Union. So there I was, in sort of a Zelig-like way, admittedly on the periphery, but nevertheless at the Kremlin and able to say that I have one of these last pictures of the hammer and sickle flying above the Kremlin. [chuckle]

And it's that kind of failure that I got to see it first hand, which gave me a good sense of how ideology can lead nations astray.” – Dr. Henry Brady

And it was a wonderful experience to learn about the Soviet Union because the truth was the Soviet Union was a mess. There’s just no other way to describe it, and it’s a society that had the allure of communism. But in fact, the net result was a tremendous failure in terms of the life of the people. And even such simple things as grocery stores, which if you went into them, had 200 items versus the 20 to 30 thousand items that our standard grocery store has in America. And it’s that kind of failure that I got to see it first hand, which gave me a good sense of how ideology can lead nations astray.

So my research has been all over the block. I’ve studied political participation in America, voting in America. I’ve studied Canadian elections. I’ve studied the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’ve studied the political participation in other countries other than the United States. I’ve studied welfare policy in America, an area I got very interested in in the 1990s, and I’ve studied voting systems.

In the 2000s, I was actually in Palm Beach County as an expert witness in the famous Butterfly Ballot case. And so I worked with a bunch of lawyers working for citizens groups that were claiming, I think correctly, that their vote had been stolen by a very badly designed ballot called the Butterfly Ballot. And we, me and a group of other people, five others, we worked together to do the statistical analysis to show how in fact that ballot had led about 2000 Gore voters, president, the candidate Al Gore , he did not become president, candidate Al Gore to lose 2000 votes. And as a result, to become the loser in that election because George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes, and the electoral college votes for Florida went to George W. Bush and George W. Bush became president.

Jed: Amazing. Historic, that... [chuckle] that is pretty amazing.

Henry: Well, that was another case...

Jed: The butterfly ballot. Wow.

Henry: Yeah, that was another case where I was just lucky to be in the midst of a really incredible and historic experience. I’ve never seen so many media people.

Jed: Oh my goodness.

Henry: I’ve never had so many media interviews. I’ve never had such a chance to really have an impact on history. Our case, we pointed out that we could statistically, with a very high degree of certainty show that in fact, 537 votes, more than 537 votes, about 2000 votes, had been lost by Al Gore and we offered to help the court figure out what the true figure was. But the court, I think with good reasons, decided that they didn’t want a bunch of statisticians and political scientists deciding the fate of the country. So by the way, in the end, the supreme court in Bush V Gore made that decision on their own.

Jed: Do you think it’s a good...

Henry: So instead of...

Jed: Go ahead.

Henry: So instead of six political scientists and statisticians, we had nine supreme court justices.

Jed: But you actually said it was for a good reason, like as if you agreed with them that if you were in their shoes, you would have not listened to the statisticians, you would have said, "No. No, thank you. We’ll decide it ourselves."

Henry: Well, I thought that, in fact, what really should have happened was there should have been a complete recount of all the ballots in Florida, and that was what was under way when the Supreme Court put a stop to things. And if that had been done, probably pretty likely, although not assured, that Al Gore would have won the state because there were a lot of uncounted ballots. The problem with having six political scientists statisticians decide the election is that what standing do we have? I think it was problematic enough that nine Supreme Court justices made that decision.

Jed: But at least they’re Supreme Court justices, not just some statistician.

Henry: At least they’re Supreme Court justices.

Jed: Okay. I see what you’re saying.

Henry: I am just a citizen with an opinion. I happen to think of all the papers and all the work I’ve ever done. I believe the result we came to more than any other result I’ve ever come to. I am sure that absolutely near 2000 votes or so were lost by Al Gore because of the butterfly ballot. And I am sure that if that ballot had been better designed, Al Gore would have been the president in 2001.

Jed: Interesting. Fascinating. Well, there’s so much I could ask you about. There’s always clarifying questions. Now, this one was from about five minutes ago, so you may not remember saying this. But you said when you were at the Kremlin, you were there in a "Zemlig" way or something like that, there was a word that began with a Z.

Henry: Zelig, the movie, Zelig that’s a movie about somebody like Forrest Gump is maybe a reference that’s more current or well-known. But Zelig was a movie about a person who was always around in historic events. Forrest Gump was always around, if you remember the movie, at historic events, just by happenstance. And I have been lucky enough to be at historic events through happenstance.

12:12The 2020 election

Jed: Oh, this is great. Thank you for remembering what you said there ’cause I didn’t understand it, and I’m sure a lot of people watching this won’t understand. Well, well, we wanna take this, as we end out our interview, in the direction of the 2020 election, because I can tell that you’ve had the experience that we need to listen to when it comes to what are the pitfalls that are in front of us. I’ve heard other political science professors, talked with Don Green for example, was talking about if there’s no problems with the election of 2020.

If, like as if there might be some major problems with it like there was in 2000, so what are the pitfalls that lie ahead?

Henry: Well, I think the thing that concerns many political scientists like myself who have done a lot of study of various voting systems, and I’ve done a lot of that and been involved with court cases involved with them, is that there’s absolutely no reason why we couldn’t have an absolutely bulletproof mail voting system in America, especially if we’d started two or three months ago. There’s just no reason why we couldn’t. It’s completely possible.

The important thing is what’s called the chain of custody of ballots. We could make sure that the chain of custody was such that we could be assured that the person who was supposed to vote with that ballot actually did vote with that ballot. We can check once the ballot comes in for the signature, and that can be done in a way that’s quite reliable.

So there’s no reason why we couldn’t have highly reliable mail ballots that would allow people to not have to go to their polling place on polling day, given the COVID-19 epidemic. And that would also, by the way, allow for the fact that many poll workers tend to be older people and they’re very likely not to be at those polls this year because of their fears of encountering all the people they would encounter at a polling place. And so there as a result, we may have polling stations, precincts closed because we can’t get the staff to actually staff them.

So the sad thing here is that there is a way we could absolutely have a, as I say, a bulletproof mail voting system that would allow everybody to participate, and it’s been sad to see how this has become politicized and claims made which are just false by all research. The research shows, for example, that neither party is particularly advantaged by mail or absentee voting. In fact, traditionally, Republicans were somewhat advantaged because it tended to be people who were higher socially economic class who tended to be Republicans who would actually get the mail and absentee votes. That’s not so much true anymore, it’s more equal between Democrats and Republicans, but the point is it’s not... Contrary to the claims being made by some, not the case that Democrats are advantaged by mail in voting. That’s just false, and it’s also false to say that there’s evidence of fraud. There certainly have been some situations where there’s been problems with mail ballots, but a good system can really defend us against those kinds of fraudulent behaviors.

Jed: You sound like John Oliver . He just had a piece on mail in votes and there doesn’t seem to be a big...

Henry: Well, yeah.

Jed: Yeah. [chuckle] Well, you know...

Henry: It’s fair to say when we have the research, we have the knowledge, we know how to do it right, and we don’t have public officials who are willing to say, "Let’s do it right." Instead, in fact, they throw sand into the gears to try to make the system fail.

Jed: Well, that is tragic. Well, here we are on August 17th, 2020. You say if it had been done two or three months ago, we could have a bulletproof plan. Well, do you think it’s too late?

Henry: It’s not absolutely too late if we really put some money into it and really worked hard at it, I think we could... And if we’re willing to wait to have the results of the election a few weeks after the election, so that we can actually have the time to count the ballots carefully and to, for example, look at the signatures on the ballot, compare them with the signatures that are in the databases. If we’re willing to put a lot of money in right now and a lot of effort, and we’re willing to wait a while until after the election to get the results, which I think we should be ’cause we wanna get it right, then we can still probably get a good system in place.

Jed: Okay, well, that’s encouraging. But your opinion of whether that’s gonna happen, I’m guessing that you wouldn’t bet on that happening, that you’d bet against that.

Henry: Oh, we have Nancy Pelosi ... We have Nancy Pelosi right now bringing back the House to deal with the issues related to the post office, which is another set of issues just to have the post office there to be able to reliably and safely have chain of custody of the ballots and deliver them, and it’s not clear that whatever the House does will get to the Senate. And if it doesn’t get to the Senate, it can’t get to the President, and therefore, nothing will happen.

Jed: So you would bet against this all happening?

Henry: I don’t know. It seems to me that the Republicans are on the wrong side of this issue right now. I think it’s not necessarily a good idea to be trying to diminish the efficacy of the post office at a time when it has the responsibilities during a pandemic of getting medicine to veterans, of getting ballots to voting places, and that it just seems to me that’s a terrible mistake on the part of the Republican administration and that they are on the wrong side, so it’s conceivable that something will come of this. But on the other hand, if your goal is to throw sand into the gears, then maybe not.

Jed: Now sand in the gears, do you think that there’s somebody in the Republican administration that says, "If we can stop this voting from happening by postal or absentee ballots and stuff, if we can stop that from happening in a widespread way, we can maintain power"? You were saying that that it was gonna be equal, so what’s going on here?

Henry: I don’t know. It’s hard to know for sure what people’s motivations are. All we can do is look at their behaviors, and it’s certainly true that the President, for example, has continuously made statements that, according to all the research I know, are false. And so it seems like he’s, at the very least, not willing to listen to the evidence and to try to do what might be best, in my opinion, to make sure that democracy can work well.

Jed: So do you think it was the kind of situation where because the Democrats wanted mail in voting, that’s why, let’s say the President or somebody close to the President said, "Oh well, then we should do the opposite"? Is it because they said this, then we have to take the opposite, or what happened there, if they truly are equal?

Henry: We won’t know that until the historians get access to documents. And it may actually not be in any documents because the President is not somebody who is actually very prone writing down things. He does most things verbally, but there may be other documents. Who knows. We’re just not going to know exactly what’s being proposed or why it’s being done. I do think that there are certainly Republicans out there, like Republican Secretaries of State, who make the case for mail voting, so that many Republicans in many states know that, in fact, if anything, mail voting might help them, and they want to make sure that there is mail voting and they are worried, in fact, that the President’s words will cause people not to vote on the Republican side.

Jed: So you’re saying that the current Secretary of State of the United States is for mail in...

Henry: No, these are the Secretary of States of the states.

Jed: Of the various states, okay.

Henry: So that each state has a Secretary of State who is typically in charge of voting systems and recording deeds and doing a whole lot of official things that states have to do. And so there are 50 secretary of states. And in many states...

Jed: And the Republican ones of those are somewhat for mail in voting? Okay, very interesting.

Henry: In many states, right, right.

20:25Sign off

Jed: This has been absolutely fascinating, both looking at your life, which has taken a lot of twists and turns to where you are right now, and then looking at the...

Henry: I’ve been lucky.

Jed: You’ve been lucky. Yeah, you keep saying that, but you also have a lot of smarts and good skills in your head, getting into Harvey Mudd is no easy feat. So right from the get-go, you had the smarts. And so we’re just so honored and blessed to have you on this little interview. Thank you for your time Dean Brady.

Henry: Thank you.

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