In Conversation

Surge in mail-in voting, health concerns portend a messy Election Day

Collage: people waiting in line to vote, USPS mailboxes.
(Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein)

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped this year’s U.S. election. 

Candidates have altered their campaign approaches, relying more on mailings and text messages than door knocking and glad-handing at events. Meanwhile, voters are weighing whether to cast their ballots by mail or risk standing in line at their polling place as infection rates climb. 

Yale political scientist Gregory Huber is studying how best to support safe elections during the public health crisis, considering measures that could reduce risk at polling places and examining Connecticut residents’ views on in-person and mail-in balloting. 

Gregory Huber
Gregory Huber

Huber, the Forst Family Professor of Political Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and chair of the Department of Political Science, spoke to YaleNews about his work. The interview has been edited and condensed. 

You’ve been studying people’s views about voting during the pandemic. What have you learned?

I’ve been working on this with Alan Gerber, who’s the dean of social science and director of Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS), and Scott Bokemper, a postdoctoral associate at ISPS. We’ve been asking people how they want to vote. Among both Democrats and Republicans in Connecticut, the average person wants to vote in person. That’s pretty surprising given the public health crisis, but our survey data indicates that most voters in Connecticut will cast ballots in person on Election Day. Of course, many more people in the state are going to vote by mail than usual. About 536,000 absentee ballots have been requested in Connecticut so far this year, which would represent a third of the 1.6 million total ballots cast in 2016. That still would leave about 1 million people voting in person on November 3.

Why are people reluctant to vote by mail?

We found that Republicans are somewhat worried that mail-in voting will lead to fraud. Everyone — regardless of party affiliation — is worried that their ballot won’t get counted if they vote by mail. They’re worried that a mistake will cause their ballot not to reach them in the first place, to not make it back to the local clerk, or to be rejected as invalid. Whereas, if they go to their polling place on Election Day, they’re much more confident that their vote will be counted. 

Are people concerned about going to the polls amid a public health crisis?

We asked people what worries them about voting in person. They’re worried about standing in lines near other people. They’re worried about interacting with poll workers. They’re worried about touching shared equipment, like pens. There is a whole set of issues that seem like standard concerns during the pandemic. 

We presented them potential measures for mitigating risk at the polls. What if masks were available to ensure everyone could wear one? What if six-foot intervals were clearly marked on the sidewalk while voters wait in line? What if poll workers wore masks and had a health screening at the start of the day? People deemed these commonsense steps to protect people’s health important and said it would increase their willingness to show up and vote on Election Day.  

We also asked people who they trusted to assure them that voting would be safe. Would they prefer to hear that message from election administrators, politicians, nurses and doctors, or public health officials? Very few people wanted to hear from election administrators or politicians. They want to hear it from public health experts, which was encouraging, but those messages have been missing right now in many states. Voters aren’t receiving adequate communication about what’s being done to make voting safe. This is a problem because if people show up to their polling place and see a long line of people not wearing masks, they’ll turn around and go home.  

The pandemic has forced campaigns to alter their get-out-the-vote strategies. What kinds of potential research questions does this raise?

We certainly know the campaigns, especially on the Democratic side, were not doing much in-person persuasion or mobilization until recently. They claimed they could substitute door-to-door canvassing with mailings, online advertising, and phone calls. We’ll see whether or not that’s true.  

I think the campaigns are realizing that the people they can reach by mail, text messages, and social media ads are different than those reached through traditional door-knocking efforts. I think both campaigns, but particularly the Democrats, have recognized that they’re probably missing potential voters by not knocking on doors and are going back into the field despite COVID-19.

That seems to me to be the big question: Will we see a drop off in those sorts of people who are hard to reach by mail or who don’t see online ads because they don’t spend much time on Facebook? 

You and your colleagues at Yale’s Center for the Study of American Politics often examine the effectiveness of get-out-the-vote efforts and other political persuasion strategies. Do you notice advocacy organizations and political campaigns altering their voter outreach based on your work?

Alan Gerber has been doing this work since the 1990s, and I think a lot of his research has influenced campaign strategies. His work on robocalls is a good example. Initially, there was a lot of emphasis placed on impersonal robocalls. The claim was that robocalls were effective because the people who got them voted. Of course, only people who were already inclined to vote got the calls. My view is that it wasn’t that robocalls persuaded people to vote, it was just that the people who provided robocall services were making a good sales pitch. 

When academics conduct experiments on messaging strategies, advocacy groups learn about the work and become invested in testing how our research plays out in campaigns. They engage in large-scale tests of different messaging strategies and then, based on what works, roll them out at scale. This isn’t necessarily true of individual candidates, who often disappear once they lose an election, but it has become very important to advocacy groups that are constantly trying to build support for their respective causes and candidates. They might spend $100 million on direct mail. If they’re going to spend that much, then it makes a big difference whether or not the strategy generates one vote for every 100 pieces of mail or three votes for every 100 pieces of mail. 

How do you expect Election Day to unfold? 

It will vary state by state, but I think we’re likely to see people in courtrooms on Election Day and in the days thereafter centering on two issues: First, long lines at polling places will be a problem. Some states have closed or relocated polling places, moving them out of nursing homes, libraries, and other places due to the pandemic. They’ve also reduced staff because it’s harder to recruit poll workers in the current conditions. Even under normal circumstances, issues arise about how long polling places can stay open or what happens if people show up to the wrong polling place. Those sorts of problems will be intensified this year. 

I think voting by mail will be the real ground zero. What will happen with ballots that come in through the mail but don’t have a postmark? What about ballots that are received in the mail the day after the election? Some states require signatures on ballot envelopes to match signatures on file. What if a person’s signature doesn’t quite match? How long do they have to resolve the mismatch? Some states, particularly the ones that have had mail-in voting for years, allow voters to resolve these issues in advance of Election Day. Many other states will only start opening mailed ballots on Election Day. There is a good chance it will be a mess, especially if the election is close.

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