Polls show little evidence of difficulty voting in 2020 elections

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The For The People Act appears doomed in the Senate, but congressional deliberations over securing the vote surely will continue. Support for the legislation is based on the belief that many voters face impediments to voting and find voting difficult. But do they? Answering the question is crucial now for two reasons. The right to vote is always of central importance in a democracy. And, we need to know from voters whether there were special problems in 2020 given the massive changes in the way Americans voted. What does polling tell us?

Throughout the 2020 campaign, Americans were bombarded with news stories about potential election nightmare scenarios. Would there be a pandemic-related shortage of poll workers? Would the U.S. Postal Service be able to deliver and collect mail ballots on time? Would foreign governments interfere? Would former President Trump’s attacks on voting by mail depress turnout? Perhaps surprisingly, given all the hype, a record number of Americans voted. What’s more, 77 percent in Pew’s post-election poll said they found voting was “very easy” and another 17 percent, “somewhat easy.” Only 1 percent of self-identified voters said it was “very difficult” and 5 percent, “somewhat difficult.” 

Wait times were long for some in 2020, but not for a majority of voters. Fifty-nine percent nationally (including 62 percent of whites, 47 percent of Blacks, and 51 percent of Hispanics) waited 10 minutes or not at all. These results come from an exhaustive online post-election survey conducted by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group (VSG). Another 21 percent waited between 10 minutes and a half-hour, while 11 percent waited 31 minutes to an hour. Eight percent of those voting in person reported waiting more than an hour. One area to note is the racial differences in wait times: 13 percent of Black voters, compared to 7 percent of whites and 8 percent of Hispanics, waited more than an hour. 

What about impediments to voting? The VSG poll found little evidence that they were widespread, and the results were surprisingly uniform across racial and ethnic groups. Those of us who study public opinion don’t rely on a single survey to form our inferences. The results of the VSG survey confirm those of earlier surveys from the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic in 2018, NPR/Marist Poll in 2018, and NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll in 2020.

What does the research show? 

None of eight possible impediments in the VSG survey was experienced by more than 3 percent of Americans nationally. No more than 7 percent of any racial or ethnic group faced any of the impediments. The responses of those who said they voted for President Biden and Trump were consistently low and virtually identical to one another. 

Three percent nationally said they couldn’t find the correct polling place, and 2 percent said they missed the registration deadline. Hispanics gave higher responses on this question than whites and Blacks, with 7 percent saying they could not find the correct polling place and 5 percent who missed the registration deadline. The VSG survey asked separate questions about mail-in ballots that never arrived or arrived too late to be processed. In both cases, 3 percent nationally experienced this. Seven percent of Hispanics, the highest response for a racial/ethnic group, said they never received the mail-in ballot they requested and 6 percent said it had arrived too late. Five percent of blacks, compared to 1 percent of whites, said the absentee ballot they had requested arrived too late.

Once at their polling places, small numbers of voters experienced problems. Three percent nationally indicated the lines were too long and that they gave up (7 percent of Hispanics, 4 percent of Blacks, and 1 percent of whites). Three percent nationally said they were told their name was not on the registration list (7 percent of Hispanics, 4 percent of Blacks, and 1 percent of whites). Three percent nationally said they had been harassed or bothered while trying to vote; again, Hispanics were slightly more likely to report this (5 percent) than Blacks (3 percent) or whites (2 percent). Finally, 2 percent were told they didn’t have the correct identification; once again, Hispanics were more likely to give this response (5 percent) than Blacks or whites (1 percent each).

Seven percent, the highest percentage recorded on any impediment, is not inconsequential. But the vast majority did not experience these obstacles. State and local officials appeared to rise to the challenge during the pandemic. The question now is whether the problems that have been identified are best addressed at the state and local level or through a federal election law overhaul. 

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow and Samantha Goldstein is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute. They authored a recent report,“Voices on the Vote: Impediments and Confidence in the 2020 Election.” 

Tags 2020 elections Donald Trump Joe Biden Voting voting by mail

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