Overall, just over 60% of those who plan to vote in the upcoming presidential election say they will do so in person, either on Election Day (41%) or at an early voting location (21%). Of those who’ve already voted, 13% say they did so in person.
The poll is one of several to show that the share of people planning to vote by mail has dropped significantly since the spring. In a recent NPR/Marist poll, 48% of likely voters said they planned to cast ballots in person on Election Day and another 14% said they would vote in person at an early voting location.
Mistrust in voting by mail is more pronounced among Republicans in the HuffPost/YouGov survey, possibly because President Donald Trump has spent the summer claiming, falsely, that mail-in votes will be used to steal the election. But notably, a large share of Democrats who plan to vote in person also cite a lack of trust in the mail: 39% of Democrats versus 61% of Republicans are planning to cast their ballots in person.
The numbers challenge earlier predictions that the coronavirus pandemic would result in a tidal shift to voting by mail. More Americans — about three in four — are eligible to vote absentee than at any time in the country’s history, and in some primaries held this spring, voters casting absentee ballots outnumbered in-person voters by nearly two to one.
But a massive shift to in-person voting could spell chaos for many precincts on Election Day.
“If a voter received an absentee ballot already, that’s someone the election official has not taken into account when doing resource allocation for how many workers to hire, booths to provide, ballots to print,” said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser at the nonprofit Democracy Fund.
Space constraints from social distancing guidelines, plus the fact that most polling places lack funding for extra supplies and equipment, will make it hard for election officials to adjust on the fly.
“That’s what gives me the knot in my stomach,” Patrick said. “If you have 300 people standing in line when the polls open, the research shows if you don’t bring the line down in the first hour or two, you’re never going to be able to recover.”
The shifting expectations on voting by mail are the result of a global pandemic and an avoidable crisis: the Trump administration’s erosion of public faith in voting by mail. Trump spent the summer repeating the false claim that Democrats would use fraudulent mail-in ballots to steal the election and continues to claim voting by mail is unsafe.
A series of legitimate scandals about slowdowns within the United States Postal Service raised fear about whether ballots would arrive in time to be counted. And warnings sounded about all the ways election officials might reject ballots even if the mail delivers them on time. North Carolina is rejecting Black voters’ absentee ballots at higher rates than white voters’ ballots. And in Pennsylvania, a single ruling — that ballots must be returned inside a secrecy envelope — may by itself disqualify as many as 100,000 ballots.
Democrats also changed their message, from encouraging as many supporters as possible to vote by mail to warning people that for their votes to count, they may have to vote in person. This summer, supporters of Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden were more than twice as likely than Trump voters to say they would vote absentee — meaning any challenges to absentee voting would disproportionately harm Democratic voters.
“We’ve gotta vote early, in person if we can,” former first lady Michelle Obama said in her Democratic National Convention address.
What’s not fully clear from these polls is how many voters have proactively changed their plans. The poll also asked voters how they would prefer to cast their ballot if they could be absolutely certain their vote would count. Of those who said it would be ideal to vote by mail, 19% said they’re going to vote in person, either at an early voting site or on Election Day.
Three-quarters of voters who say they would prefer to vote by mail report that they still plan to do so.
In-person voting presents unique challenges this year. The pandemic has made it difficult for some precincts to recruit enough poll workers and dangerous to pack extra voting machines. And in certain states, where huge numbers of voters requested an absentee ballot but the tracking technology is rudimentary, it may be difficult for officials to predict how many voters will show up in person. Many states require voters who received an absentee ballot but show up to vote in person instead to fill out a provisional ballot — which takes longer and can hold up the line.
Ironically, the revelations about slowdowns at the post office have resulted in major changes to ballot-counting that experts say eliminated some of the biggest threats to voting by mail.
In court, voter rights advocates fought to force states to count ballots that arrived after Election Day so long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3 and to give voters extra notice and time to correct ballots that had been rejected for technical reasons. Pennsylvania will now count ballots arriving up to three days after Election Day; Michigan will count ballots that arrive up to 23 days after Election Day.
Many states have launched ballot-tracking systems allowing voters to see if their ballot is accepted. Two federal courts ordered Postmaster Louis DeJoy to reverse policy changes that had caused a general slowdown in the mail. The USPS also, thanks to enormous public pressure, promised to deliver all completed ballots via first-class mail, the fastest possible speed. (In August, it warned that states may have to pay extra for speedy delivery.)
“I trust the U.S. Postal Service,” said Celina Stewart, the senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters, a voter advocacy organization. “They are more than capable of handling this volume, they know what they’re doing, they could do this in their sleep. It’s a matter of helping them out — mailing it early. Requesting your ballot early, sending it back early.”
But all these changes don’t seem to have eliminated voters’ mistrust.
“As of now, a lot of this is in the hands of the voters and how they choose to behave,” Patrick. Her advice is not to wait to make a plan: “Voters should take early action and leave nothing to chance.”
Use the widget below to further explore the results of the HuffPost/YouGov survey, using the menu at the top to select survey questions and the buttons at the bottom to filter the data by subgroups:
Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed reporting.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Oct. 5-9 among U.S. registered voters, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the population.
HuffPost has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.
Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some but not all potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate.
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