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Most voters confident their vote will be counted, poll finds. But partisans disagree on election threats.

Democrats are more worried about voting in person. Republicans are more worried about voting by mail.

- October 6, 2020

Americans are worried about this election. And who can blame them? Each day, a new story, whether true, false or overblown, creates fresh anxiety about mail-in voting or polling places.

A battleground-state survey conducted by the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project shows that registered voters harbor worries about voting in this election that diverge in predictable ways, given their partisan affiliations. Despite these worries, most are confident that their ballots will be counted accurately.

As part of this survey, 500 registered voters were interviewed from Sept. 7 to 11 in each of seven battleground states (Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), making 3,500 respondents overall. The survey was conducted online to an opt-in sample by YouGov. Responses were weighted to demographic characteristics of registered voters for each state as measured by the 2018 Current Population Survey, along with the 2016 presidential vote split. The margin of error was 4.3 percentage points for each state sample and 1.7 points for the combined sample.

The partisan divisions emerge because Democrats and Republicans view the risks of voting differently. The survey asked whether people were worried about these aspects of voting in person:

  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Traveling to and from the polling place’, ‘_id’: ‘NWIFGAN27RCPVNX5MMW63WB4BI’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Having to put my ballot into a ballot box’, ‘_id’: ‘KBPS52V77RE23J2OXMAJ6KQQYY’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Having to hand my identification to a poll worker’, ‘_id’: ‘VI3MHY776ZBCRO7HT3TXSGTJHU’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Being near poll workers’, ‘_id’: ‘2Y52RPARPRD7RB23A2EERXEAIY’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Having to touch door handles when entering and exiting the polling place’, ‘_id’: ‘J2IP4H46HRHFBN6ZUP4OKNNLNE’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Being near other voters when filling out my ballot’, ‘_id’: ‘7DPUJR4CIVGBPO6HMEXZHHYPZQ’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Waiting in line with other people’, ‘_id’: ‘TNQRCCZQKJE4RLFVLTAHHEA7YY’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Having to touch a voting machine or a pen to mark my ballot’, ‘_id’: ‘VFIC4GXG6FHF7FU3Q4OBMCGU5I’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Being near other voters’, ‘_id’: ‘JOATDFFZN5DFNCYOSYJCWS74YA’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}

For every item concerning in-person voting, Democrats were more worried than Republicans. The greatest worries were “being near other voters” and “waiting in line with others.” Almost 60 percent of Democrats shared those concerns, compared with only 13 percent of Republicans. This divide reflects Democrats’ greater concern about the coronavirus pandemic and the risks of infection when standing near large numbers of people.

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But when asked about voting by mail, Republicans are more worried than Democrats. The survey asked respondents how concerned they were about the following aspects of mail balloting:

  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Whether I have the postage to mail my ballot back’, ‘_id’: ‘XHTPUPMANREFTCKJHHBAMF4LPM’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘How I can vote if I change my mind and decide to vote on Election Day’, ‘_id’: ‘DCQFJBMHTJHZVFDHMG7KWSB6G4’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘How I can vote if I lose or spoil my ballot’, ‘_id’: ‘5WZ6VGT7OVEK7NP2M4LGIN5I6Q’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Whether someone else will request a ballot in my name and steal my ballot’, ‘_id’: ‘JUPGN7TQEJGVJL5LLAXWKC3EJY’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Whether my mail ballot will reach me in time’, ‘_id’: ‘RPDTZDG3MBBWFMOYFW5FE4TK4U’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Whether someone will intercept my ballot and vote in place of me’, ‘_id’: ‘RJBMSPXB6ZGD7E2SED3V6WJ4IQ’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Whether my absentee or mail ballot application will be received and processed’, ‘_id’: ‘6LWEZLJNUZD4TJCBOOCH4KP5OI’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Whether my completed mail ballot will be returned to election officials in time to be counted’, ‘_id’: ‘FWRV75MF2ZCXLPKAGEXND2BPQQ’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Whether election officials will decide to count my ballot when it is returned’, ‘_id’: ‘OHGA5XFRSBEODJ7GJ5QSZJ5UII’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}

Here, Republicans and Democrats differ most on whether someone might steal or intercept a ballot. On those items, at least 55 percent of Republicans are worried, but less than 20 percent of Democrats share that concern. These Republican concerns reflect the rhetoric of President Trump, who has frequently amplified false claims about fraud in mail balloting, including in the first presidential debate.

On other questions about mail balloting, the concerns are more broadly shared. Almost 60 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats worry that their ballots won’t be received or will be rejected.

And yet, despite these concerns, over 80 percent of both Democrats and Republicans view it as “extremely” or “somewhat” likely that their votes would be counted. Part of the reason is that people intend to vote via the means that they trust.

Although the details vary by state, overall, 59 percent of the Democrats in our survey state that they will vote by mail, compared with only 21 percent of Republicans. This probably reflects Democratic concerns about the novel coronavirus and Republican concerns (however unfounded) about the integrity of mail ballots.

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Thus, it’s unsurprising that more Republicans than Democrats say they intend to vote in person on Election Day (62 percent vs. 22 percent). Barely half (55 percent) of Republicans answer that it is likely that their ballots would be counted if they were to vote by mail. In contrast, 81 percent of Democrats believe it likely that their mail ballot would be counted.

This survey was fielded before Trump was hospitalized for covid-19. It is quite possible that Republicans have become more worried about contracting the virus as a consequence, although given the persistence of partisan divisions over the pandemic and Trump’s obvious desire to downplay the seriousness of his illness, it seems unlikely that attitudes on these items have changed very much.

Although partisans share some worries and diverge on others, we should be heartened by the overall confidence that people have that their vote will be counted. This goes against a larger narrative that suggests widespread lack of trust that this election will be free and fair. Perhaps, in the end, voters tend to trust the mode of voting that they prefer, even if they harbor concerns about the choices their fellow voters are making. But, of course, even if they trust that their own vote was counted as intended, they still might distrust the administration of the election that occurs outside their direct experience.

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Nathaniel Persily (@persily) is the James B. McClatchy professor of law at Stanford Law School and co-director of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project.

Charles Stewart III (@cstewartiii) is the Kenan Sahin distinguished professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-director of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project.