A man wearing a protective mask due to COVID-19 pandemic holds an American flag and a sign that says "count every vote"

A man wearing a protective mask due to COVID-19 pandemic holds a sign outside Madison Square Garden, which is used as a polling station, on the first day of early voting in Manhattan, New York, October 24, 2020

Photo by Jeenah Moon/Reuters

For our recent report, Attitudes on Voting in 2020 (Kavanagh, Gibson, and Hodgson, 2020), we conducted a survey of nearly 2,400 respondents across the country and found that a majority of Americans expected that they would be able to vote safely in the fall (which we refer to as perception of safety) and that their vote would be counted (perception of integrity)—but we also found that many people were unsure on both dimensions.[1] In August, we asked a subsample of 1,841 of the original respondents about public expectations of election safety and integrity and compared the results to see how attitudes had changed between May and August 2020. This report summarizes our findings.[2]

Fewer Americans Expect Their Votes to Be Counted Correctly; More Are Uncertain

Figures 1a and 1b compare the May and August responses of the reduced sample. At this aggregate level, we observe small changes, including a slight decline in expectations of safety and a drop in the percentage of respondents who expect their vote to be counted correctly.[3]

Fewer expected to be safe from threats to their physical health when voting.

The percentage of people reporting an expectation of safety fell slightly from 62 percent of the reduced sample in May to 60 percent in August, a statistically significant drop. We find no change in uncertainty and a 1-percent increase in the number of people saying that they did not expect to be safe from threats to physical health.[4]

Fewer expected their vote to be counted accurately, and many remained uncertain on this topic.

Between May and August, the percentage of respondents expecting their vote to be accurately counted declined from 59 percent to 54 percent, and the proportion of respondents who expressed uncertainty about whether this would happen increased from 34 percent to 38 percent. There was almost no change in the percentage of respondents who reported that they did not expect their vote to be counted.

Uncertainty remains high, especially around perceptions of integrity.

As the election draws closer (and as voters get more information both about how their jurisdiction is preparing and about the spread and risks of COVID-19), one might expect the overall level of uncertainty to decline as voters become more certain about what they will encounter in the November 2020 election. But that is not what we observe. Instead, we see the level of uncertainty holding steady for whether voting in person would be safe and rising about whether an individual's vote would be counted correctly. Importantly, the fact that only slightly more than one-half of respondents expect their vote to be counted correctly in our survey suggests that voters have continuing questions about the integrity of the 2020 election.

Figure 1a. Perceptions of Safety, May–August 2020

Perceptions of safety May August
Unsure 28% 28%
Did not expect safety 11% 12%
Expected safety 62% 60%

NOTE: Because of rounding, the May numbers do not add up to exactly 100 percent.

Figure 1b. Perceptions of Integrity, May–August 2020

Perception of integrity May August
Unsure 34% 38%
Did not expect integrity 7% 7%
Expected integrity 59% 54%

NOTE: Because of rounding, the August numbers do not add up to exactly 100 percent.

There are several factors that might explain the increased level of uncertainty as the election draws near. First, although there is now more information available about the risks of COVID-19, uncertainty about its continued spread over the final weeks leading up to the election has remained high. Second, respondents might not know what local officials are doing to make in-person voting safe and might be struggling to decipher conflicting information from public figures on the relative safety of polling places. Relating to the issue of whether votes will be counted correctly, increasing uncertainty could stem from concerns about the ability of the U.S. Postal Service to handle an increased volume of mail-in ballots and about the vulnerability of mail-in voting to fraud—though there is little evidence to support claims of widespread fraud through in-person or by-mail options (Goel et al., 2020; Minnite and Callahan, 2003; Reality Check Team, 2020; Stein, 2013).

Importantly, our results for this question of whether respondents expect their votes to be counted accurately are comparable with those of a series of Pew Research Center surveys that asked a similar question in 2004, 2008, and 2016.[5] Direct comparison is difficult because of different response options, but our 2020 results seem to indicate that respondent expectations that their votes will be counted accurately are slightly higher than those that Pew reported for 2016—but somewhat lower than those that Pew reported for 2004 and 2008. Our results on questions about expectations of accurate vote count and expectations of physical safety at the polls are, in broad terms, also comparable with their 2020 results. Once again, however, direct comparisons are difficult because Pew offered different response options and because Pew asked separate questions about the expected accuracy of the count of mail-in ballots and of ballots cast in person (Fingerhut, 2016; Pew Research Center, 2020.).

Aggregate Stability Masks Changes at the Individual Level

Aggregate trends can disguise underlying changes at the individual level. When we investigate changing attitudes at this microlevel, we find several changes in respondent attitudes.

Regarding integrity, we observe the following:

  • About three-quarters of those who said in May that they expected their vote to be counted accurately held this same attitude in August, but others are no longer sure. Of those who expressed confidence in May, 22 percent now say they are "not sure."
  • Among respondents who expressed uncertainty in May about election integrity, a majority (64 percent) said the same in August; 25 percent shifted to an expectation that their vote would be counted; and 11 percent shifted to the opposite view.
  • A majority of those who said in May that they expected that their vote would not be counted accurately had changed their mind by August. Only about one-quarter of those who said that they did not expect that their vote would be counted accurately held this same view in August. Although this was already a small group, more than one-half of these respondents shifted from not expecting their vote to be counted to being unsure. The remaining one-quarter of those who replied "no" in May expressed in August that they did expect their vote to be counted.

To summarize the trends between May and August on perceptions of integrity, then, we observe that a majority of respondents had not changed their minds between May and August. For those who did adjust their expectations, the most notable trend was toward increasing uncertainty. Figure 2 illustrates these trends.

Figure 2. Changing Perceptions of Integrity

May August
Yes 59% 54%
Not Sure 34% 38%
No 7% 7%

NOTE: Because of rounding, the August numbers do not add up to exactly 100 percent.

Regarding questions of election safety in the wake of the pandemic, we observe that about one-third of respondents changed their minds between May and August; the remainder reported the same expectations. These trends are not dissimilar from those observed for integrity, with the most notable shifts being those toward increased uncertainty among those who expressed an expectation of safety in May. We find the following:

  • Among those who reported in May that they expected to be able to cast their ballot safely, the majority reported the same in August (78 percent). About 17 percent of these respondents shifted from expecting safety to expressing uncertainty about whether they would be safe, and the remaining 6 percent updated their expectation to "no."
  • Similarly, the majority (51 percent) who reported in May that they were not sure they would be physically safe in the general election gave the same response in August. Among the remainder, most respondents shifted from uncertainty to expecting safety (36 percent). Only a small number shifted from uncertainty to not expecting safety (13 percent).
  • Changing attitudes were most common among those who said in May that they would not feel safe. Among those respondents, only 29 percent gave the same response in August; 37 percent reported that they would feel safe, and 34 percent reported that they were uncertain.

Figure 3 illustrates these trends.

Across our analyses of perceptions of safety and integrity, we can say that, despite stability in expectations among the majority of respondents, we still see a good amount of churn among about one-third of respondents. The most-notable trends are toward increasing uncertainty. We observe this trends for respondents who reported in May that they expected safety and among all respondents on questions of whether respondent votes will be counted correctly.

Figure 3. Changing Perceptions of Safety

May August
Yes 60% 62%
Not Sure 28% 28@
No 12% 11%

NOTE: Because of rounding, the August numbers do not add up to exactly 100 percent.

Who Changed Their Minds?

Finally, we explored whether those who changed their responses between May and August on safety and integrity shared any specific characteristics—put another way, whether particular types of voters are shifting from expecting safety and integrity to being uncertain or the reverse. We explored individual characteristics that appeared to be associated with the likelihood that individuals would change their minds.[6]

Tables 1 and 2 show the characteristics associated with different changes in attitudes. We do not consider every change but instead look at some of the most-common attitude changes.

Table 1. Changes in Expectations of Integrity

Attitude in May Attitude in August Associated Characteristics
Integrity Integrity Older respondents (compared with younger respondents)
Unsure Unsure Black or African American respondents (compared with White respondents)
Asian/Pacific Islander respondents (compared with White respondents)
Integrity Unsure No statistically significant predictors
Unsure Integrity White respondents (compared with other respondents)
No integrity Unsure or Integrity White respondents (compared with other respondents)

Regarding the question of whether the respondent's vote will be accurately counted, we found that race was the most significant predictor of changes in attitude.

  • We found that Black or African American and Asian respondents were more likely than White respondents to remain "unsure" that their vote would be accurately counted. Significantly, these respondents were also less likely to say in May that they expected that their vote would be counted. The results here suggest that, as of August, this attitude endured.
  • In contrast, we observed that White respondents were more likely to have updated their expectations in a positive direction between May and August, from "unsure" to "yes" and from "no" to "unsure" or "yes." This indicates an increasing confidence among these voters that their votes will be counted (but not necessarily that all votes will be counted).
  • We also found that older respondents were more likely to have consistent expectations in both periods that their vote will be counted accurately.
  • These results are not surprising considering the broader historical context of elections in the United States and issues of disenfranchisement of minority (especially Black or African American) voters.

Table 2. Changes in Expectations of Safety

Attitude in May Attitude in August Associated Characteristics
Safety Safety Republicans (compared with Democrats and independents)
Unsure Unsure No statistically significant predictors
Safety Unsure Hispanic respondents (compared with non-Hispanic respondents)
Unsure Safety No statistically significant predictors
No Safety Unsure or safety Older respondents (compared with younger respondents)
Postgraduate education (compared with high school or less)

Regarding the question of safety, we found a wider set of characteristics that appear to be associated with whether and how respondents change their minds.

  • First, we observed that Republicans were more likely than Democrats or independents to continue to report that they expect physical safety.
  • Second, we found that Hispanic respondents were more likely than non-Hispanic voters to shift toward uncertainty, regardless of whether they reported in May that they expected safety.
  • Finally, respondents who shifted from not expecting safety to either uncertainty or expecting safety tended to be older and to have higher levels of education. For these voters, the shift might reflect acquisition of new information and subsequent updating of expectations.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, our comparisons of the May and August surveys suggest general stability in attitudes with some change among about one-third of respondents. Regarding perceptions of safety, the most notable trend is a small shift among respondents who in May expected safety in voting but expressed uncertainty in August. Regarding the question of whether the respondent's vote will be accurately counted, the trend toward more uncertainty exists across respondents. Both the general stability and the trend toward uncertainty among some groups make sense when considering continued questions about the trajectory of COVID-19 and the ongoing debate at the national level about how best to execute safe and secure elections in November. When we look at who is most likely to change their minds, we find that non-White respondents are more likely to remain in or shift to the "unsure" group for both safety and integrity. White respondents appear to have shifted somewhat toward more-positive expectations about integrity. Regarding the question of safety, Republicans are most likely to retain the positive expectations that they expressed in May, with older and more-educated voters more likely to express more-positive safety and integrity expectations.

Although the August survey is closer to the election than the May survey, we expect that, with two months to go at the time of the survey, additional change has occurred and uncertainty could remain high right up to Election Day.

References

  • Fingerhut, Hannah, "Trump Supporters Far Less Confident Than Clinton Backers That Votes Will Be Counted Accurately," Pew Research Center, August 19, 2016.
  • Goel, Sharad, Marc Meredith, Michael Morse, David Rothschild, and Houshmand Shirani-Mehr, "One Person, One Vote: Estimating the Prevalence of Double Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections," American Political Science Review, Vol. 114, No. 2, May 2020.
  • Kavanagh, Jennifer, C. Ben Gibson, and Quentin E. Hodgson, Attitudes on Voting in 2020: Preparing for Elections During a Pandemic, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-A112-9, 2020. As of October 20, 2020: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA112-9.html
  • Kavanagh, Jennifer, C. Ben Gibson, and Quentin E. Hodgson, Voter Attitudes Toward the 2020 Election: August 2020 Update, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-A112-16, 2020. As of October 30, 2020: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA112-16.html
  • Minnite, Lori, and David Callahan, Securing the Vote: An Analysis of Election Fraud, New York: Demos, 2003.
  • Reality Check Team, "US Election: Do Postal Ballots Lead to Voting Fraud?" BBC, July 15, 2020.
  • Pew Research Center, Deep Divisions in Views of the Election Process—and Whether It Will Be Clear Who Won, Washington, D.C., October 14, 2020.
  • Pollard, Michael S., and Matthew D. Baird, The RAND American Life Panel: Technical Description, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-1651, 2017. As of October 20, 2020: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1651.html
  • Stein, Robert M., The Incidence and Detection of Ineligible Voting, paper presented at the American Political Science Association 2013 annual meeting, Chicago, Ill., 2013.

Notes

  • [1] We asked two questions: "Assuming that you do vote, when you think about voting in November 2020, do you feel that you will be safe from risks to your physical health stemming from [coronavirus disease 2019] COVID-19?" (perception of safety) and "Assuming that you do vote, do you feel that your vote will be counted correctly in light of the current pandemic?" (perception of integrity).
  • [2] Given that information about the November election and the status of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to change, we expect that attitudes will also continue to evolve right up to Election Day. The next report in this series will consider data that we collected in October. We will also conduct a post-election survey.
  • [3] Both changes are statistically significant at the 0.05 level according to a chi-square test.
  • [4] Descriptive statistics use population weights that feature partisanship and vote history (Pollard and Baird, 2017). For descriptive statistics of our full dataset, see the technical appendix to this report.
  • [5] We specifically asked respondents whether they expect that their votes will be counted correctly in the context of the pandemic. Two points are worth making. First, responses might have been different if we had asked respondents whether they expect that all votes will be counted correctly. Past research shows that individuals are more likely to expect that their vote will be accurately counted than that all votes will be accurately counted. See for example, Fingerhut, 2016. Second, although we asked voters specifically to consider the role of the pandemic context in their expectations about the accuracy of the vote count, they are likely considering a broader set of factors in their answers.
  • [6] We use logistic regressions to identify characteristics associated with changes in attitude. See the technical appendix for more detail on methods and for regression results. Results displayed are significant at the 0.05 level. Characteristics used in the analysis were age, region of residence, political affiliation, education, race, ethnicity, voting history, gender, and whether there was a no-excuse-needed vote-by-mail option in the state of residence.

In this report, we consider the perceptions of 1,841 survey respondents about the safety and integrity of elections in November 2020. We consider how respondent attitudes changed between May and August 2020 and which populations are more or less likely to have updated their expectations about (1) physical safety and (2) whether their votes will be counted accurately, given the pandemic context. The data used in this report come from a RAND Corporation American Life Panel survey conducted in August 2020.

We appreciate the support of Michael D. Rich, Terrence Kelly, Henry H. Willis, Jordan R. Fischbach, Matthew D. Baird, Erica Robles, and Steph Bingley. We are also grateful for feedback from our reviewers, Brian Michael Jenkins and Michael S. Pollard. Their contributions significantly improved the report. We thank Arwen Bicknell for her expert editorial assistance on this report. We also appreciate the efforts of Beth Bernstein and Jeremy Rawitch in the publication process.

This report is part of RAND's Countering Truth Decay initiative, which is focused on restoring the role of facts, data, and analysis in U.S. political and civil discourse and the policymaking process. The original 2018 report, Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life, by Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich, laid out a research agenda for studying and developing solutions to the Truth Decay challenge. Truth Decay worsens when individuals lose trust in institutions that could serve as sources of factual information. Legitimate and safe elections can be a first step toward building and maintaining a government that people trust. This report considers public perceptions of the safety and integrity of elections in pandemic conditions and their views of local preparedness for the elections.

Funding for RAND's Countering Truth Decay initiative is provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. RAND would like to recognize the Joel and Joanne Mogy Truth Decay Fellowship, established by the Mogys in 2020 to support research on Truth Decay, civics, and democracy. The authors drew from the Mogys' generous gift to fund this project.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.