by Zach Montellaro
New research shows why two-thirds of both groups prefer to vote in person, and why Democrats aren’t pushing everyone to vote by mail.
Democrats’ push to promote mail-in voting this fall could be undermined by an important fact: Some of their key constituencies don’t trust it.
Black and Latino voters consistently voice more discomfort and uncertainty about voting by mail, even as a majority of Democrats overall say they plan to cast absentee ballots this fall, according to polling and focus groups. Generating overwhelming margins and turnout among both groups is a key to victory for Joe Biden in November, and Democrats don’t want to lose any votes by suggesting that mail voting is the only proper way to cast a ballot in the general election.
In a series of recent focus groups conducted in Philadelphia and Las Vegas by iVote — a Democratic group focused on voting rights and secretaries of state — and shared with POLITICO, Black and Latino voters said the experience of voting in person “has been ingrained and they feel secure their vote will be counted,” according to the report summary.
The findings are bolstered by a pair of recent polls from the Voter Participation Center, in partnership with Latino Decisions and the African American Research Collaborative, which showed that nearly two-thirds of Latino and Black voters prefer to vote in person because “they believe their vote is more likely to be counted than if they vote by mail.”
“Voting is a habit, and we should be meeting voters where they are,” said iVote founder Ellen Kurz. “Amidst a pandemic, we can increase turnout by emphasizing voting early through whichever option voters prefer. That includes presenting voters with all of their options to vote early, including vote-by-mail and early in-person voting.”
The new research comes amid a massive push from Democrats — from Biden and the Democratic National Committee to outside groups and down-ballot campaigns — to urge voters to make their voting plan now so that they still turn out amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced huge shifts in voting behavior. The Biden campaign has made a strong push for voting by mail, but it is also encouraging voters to cast their ballot how they’re most comfortable doing so.
The iVote research found that emphasizing voters had options, telling people they could vote early either in-person or via the mail, was the most effective messaging. iVote’s affiliated nonprofit arm also launched a $20 million campaign earlier in the summer to push voters to vote before Election Day.
In the focus groups, Black participants felt especially strongly about voting in person.
“Culturally, it’s being there physically. It’s easy to write something down from the comfort of home,” said a Black woman who participated in one of the Philadelphia focus groups. (The focus group report did not identify participants by name.) “But it’s about getting up and being present. That wasn’t always something that was afforded to us.”
Voters in the focus groups saw in-person voting as the most secure option, saying the method offers little opportunity for tampering or ballot loss, as well as a chance to immediately resolve any issues with their ballots.
But panelists were also concerned about in-person voting in the midst of the pandemic. Many of the voters were already “accustomed to long lines on Election Day,” which could be problematic during a pandemic, and said there could be the potential for last-minute poll closures.
The polling memos, along with the focus group report, call for voters to be provided more information about mail-in voting. Eighty-two percent of Latino respondents in the poll said they would like to receive clear instructions explaining how to sign up and vote by mail.
The focus group report provided recommendations for overcoming some voters’ concerns with vote by mail, including promoting secure drop boxes that voters could use to drop ballots off in person and assuage concerns about their ballots getting lost or stolen. Details about ballot tracking could help voters who are worried about votes not being counted, and information from credible sources, like state and local elected officials and local TV news, was seen as particularly helpful for getting more information about voting.
The focus groups were conducted by David Binder Research in early August, before widespread concerns grew among prominent Democrats about the United States Postal Service’s ability to handle election mail. The panels convened voters who either plan on voting for Biden or are leaning toward it, including voters who either expressed no preference for a voting method or said they preferred to vote in-person.
Paradoxically, President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on mail-in voting made some focus group participants more likely to vote by mail. Messaging showing that the president praised Florida’s mail-in system while attacking Nevada’s made some think the president had “ulterior motives.”
“That makes me more confident about vote by mail,” a white man in a Philadelphia panel said. “He had reason to be concerned that it would allow more people who would not vote for him to vote.”
Zach Montellaro is a POLITICO Campaign Pro reporter and the author of the Morning Score.