Oct 29, 2020
An August 2020 survey of Americans' attitudes about voting in November 2020 revealed small changes in responses compared with May 2020 responses to an identical survey that focused on intention to vote and intended voting method. Changes were modest but notable, including some decline in intention to vote among those who were uncertain in May, and a shift from in-person to mail-in voting.
Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters
Our recent report, Attitudes on Voting in 2020 (Kavanagh, Gibson, and Hodgson, 2020a), described Americans' intentions to vote in the November 2020 election as determined by a survey conducted in May this year. We examined the likelihood that they would vote and how they planned to vote—whether in person or by mail. To assess how attitudes have changed since then, we asked the same set of questions in August to a subsample of 1,841 respondents from the original survey and compared the responses.
We asked respondents to report their intention to vote in percentage terms from 0 to 100. Figure 1 shows the results of our survey in May 2020 and August 2020. We consider four categories: nearly certain voters (intention to vote greater than 90 percent), uncertain voters (intention to vote between 51 and 90 percent), uncertain nonvoters (intention to vote between 10 and 50 percent); and nearly certain nonvoters (intention to vote less than 10 percent).
|Nearly certain nonvoters (intention to vote less than 10%)||12%||16%|
|Uncertain nonvoters (intention to vote between 10% and 50%)||11%||5%|
|Uncertain voters (intention to vote between 51% and 90%)||11%||11%|
|Nearly certain voters (intention to vote greater than 90%)||66%||67%|
The greatest change in voter intent at the aggregate level between May and August is a decline in the number of uncertain nonvoters (from 11 percent to 5 percent of the total) and an increase in the number of nearly certain nonvoters (from 12 percent to 16 percent). We also observe a small increase in the percentage of voters who reported in August that they were almost certain to vote. Given the relatively small size of these changes, the relative stability at the aggregate level in intention to vote between the two periods is worth noting. This does not rule out the possibility that the continuing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic (or any other situational factor) is depressing intention to vote; but, at the very least, any decline resulting from the pandemic was small enough between May and August to be offset by other factors, such as enthusiasm for a candidate or issue.
Stability at the aggregate level, however, could be the result of some people increasing their intention to vote and others decreasing their intention to vote. To explore this possibility, we examined changes in attitude at the individual level. These results are shown in Figure 2. The key findings were as follows:
Despite some stability at the aggregate level, then, there is a good deal of change in intention to vote at the individual level. Most of this change occurs among those who were uncertain voters or uncertain nonvoters in May. Between May and August, some portion of both groups become more certain in their intent, shifting either to the nearly certain voter or the nearly certain nonvoter category (a total of 55 percent of those who were uncertain voters and nonvoters in May). Almost one-half of those who expressed some degree of uncertainty about their intention to vote in May remained uncertain in August. Once again, although it is possible that the pandemic is depressing turnout among some voters, we do not see a clear or consistent decline that would suggest widespread effects of the pandemic.
|Greater than 90%||66%||67%|
|Less than 10%||12%||16%|
The third question that we asked about intention to vote is whether certain individuals are more or less likely to report higher (or lower) intentions to vote in August than in May. Table 1 identifies the characteristics associated with both types of change.
Shifts in voting intention depended most significantly on political affiliation and perceptions of safety. We observed that Republicans were more likely than Democrats (as well as independents and other affiliations) to report an increase in voter intention between May and August; Democrats were correspondingly more likely to report a decrease in intention to vote. Second, we found that those voters who live in the Midwest appeared most likely to show an increase in intention to vote (controlling for political affiliation), which is notable from the perspective of election outcomes but is not clearly linked to the pandemic context.
The relationship between intention to vote and perceptions of safety is more complex. First, those who reported in either May or August that they felt confident that the elections would be conducted safely reported an increased intention to vote in August compared with their intention in May. Interestingly, it did not matter in which of the two surveys (August or May) they expressed feelings of safety. Even voters who expressed perceptions of safety in May but not in August reported an increased intention to vote. There are several possible explanations for this. One is that factors outside the perception of safety (such as enthusiasm for a specific candidate or issue) are driving attitudes toward voting. Another possibility is that voters have increased intention to vote despite safety concerns because of limited availability of mail-in options in their states or information about state safety protocols.
Those who said that they did not expect to be able to vote safely in person in both May and August were most likely to report a decline in their intention to vote. Most often, these shifts were into the nearly certain nonvoter category (intention below 10 percent). Finally, those who reported high perceptions of safety in both May and August had the highest intentions to vote, although we did see some downward trend among these voters out of the nearly certain voter category (intention above 90 percent). Still, these respondents remain more likely to vote than those with less expectation of safety, and, overall, the total number of voters shifting from above 90 percent to a lower intention is small.
In both May and August, we asked respondents how they planned to vote, whether by mail or in person. Figure 3 compares intentions to vote by mail and in person as reported by our respondents in May and in August. For the purpose of this analysis, we combined all mail-in voting options (e.g., absentee, mail-in) into one category, and we consider only respondents who reported an intention to vote of at least 51 percent (i.e., the nearly certain and uncertain voters referred to in the last section). We limited the sample in this way to focus on those respondents who are more likely to actually vote in November (we call these respondents likely voters). However, the trends in the reduced sample (with a total of 1,695 people) are very similar to those in the full sample.
In August 2020, we found that 47 percent of likely voters planned to vote by mail (up from 42 percent in May 2020) and 52 percent of likely voters said that they would vote in person (down from 56 percent in May 2020). Although we see some changes in intended voting methods between May and August, the change is more dramatic when we compare 2020 intentions with those recorded from past elections. When asked about how they voted in the most recent past election, 69 percent of these same voters reported that they had voted in person.
One key observation is that intended methods of voting vary considerably depending on political affiliation. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say that they would vote in person, and this difference appears more significant for the November 2020 election than in the past. For Democrats who said that they were likely to vote, less than one-half who said that they voted in person in their last reported election expect to do so in November 2020.
|Vote by mail||42%||47%|
We can also look at changes at the individual level by comparing whether likely voters changed their intended voting method between the May and August iterations of the survey. The results are shown in Figure 4, and the key findings are as follows:
On net, then, we observe a shift toward more mail-in voting among likely voters, and this increase comes both from those who planned to vote in person and those who reported "other" as their voting method. Still, the number of planned in-person voters remains higher than the number of planned mail-in voters, and some respondents shifted into the in-person category since May despite any possible health risks.
Finally, we consider the types of people who switched their intended methods of voting between May and August. Table 2 identifies characteristics of those most likely to have shifted their intended voting method between May and August.
Across all factors considered, political affiliation and perceptions of safety were the strongest predictors of the likelihood of shifting to mail-in voting. Race or ethnicity is also important. Here, we observe several key trends:
Changes in intention to vote and intended voting method have been modest since May 2020 but are notable nonetheless. When considering intention to vote, we found a drop in intention for a group of respondents who had been uncertain voters in May and in August expressed that they were nearly certain not to vote. When considering intended voting method among those who reported they were likely to vote, we observed a continued shift toward mail-in voting. Individual characteristics most commonly associated with changes in intention to vote and changes in intended voting method appear to be perceptions of safety, political affiliation, and race or ethnicity.
Perceptions of safety are clearly related to intention to vote. Those with low perceptions of safety across our May and August surveys are among the least likely to vote and showed a decline in intention between the two surveys. Those who reported that they expected voting in person to be physically safe in one of the two periods, in contrast, increased their intention to vote. However, those with safety concerns were also more likely to shift to mail-in voting, perhaps as a mitigation of those concerns. Political affiliation is also associated with a likelihood of shifting to mail-in voting, with self-identified Democrats being more likely to shift. Finally, we find that race or ethnicity matters in selection of a voting method. Hispanic respondents were increasingly likely to shift toward mail-in voting; Black or African American respondents were more likely to shift toward in-person voting. Given the higher concerns about accurate vote counts among these voters, this trend is important (Bowler et al., 2015; Kavanagh, Gibson, and Hodgson, 2020a).
Past work has shown that voting intentions continue to shift right up to Election Day for some voters, especially those who are uncertain about their intentions (Achen and Blais, 2015; Glaser, 1958). The ongoing pandemic and the constant changes in state election procedures for November 2020 could increase the amount of churn this year. We will examine this in the next report in this series, which will consider data that we collected in October.