Access to Voting: What Does Research Tell Us?
The PPC hosted a virtual panel discussion around the topics of voter access (polling locations, voting options in the pandemic, voter ID, etc.) and election administration and security (mail-in voting, etc.) on Oct 22, 2020 at 6:30 pm. The panel was held via Zoom.
NPR reporter Miles Parks gave keynote remarks, which focused on questions of cybersecurity and making voting safe and secure during a pandemic. He gave insight to his personal reporting, which focuses on misinformation and who stands to benefit from it, as well as politicians who stoke partisan flames. Parks also described conspiracy theories flourishing during this election, as well as ones that may emerge if an immediate result is not reached on election night or soon after. He warned of Russia and Iran trying to disrupt our election with voter intimidation, as well as local election officials needing more funding.
Parks considers this year’s historic voter turnout incredible, given all the reasons people have not to vote, including a distrust of mail-in ballots, not having easy access to a polling place, or the fears of the pandemic.
Emily Beaulieu Bacchus, an associate professor in Comparative Politics at the University of Kentucky, started the panel discussion with an explanation of how and when fraud occurs, emphasizing that fraudulent registration is incredibly rare, even essentially nonexistent. “You cannot pick a less efficient way to sway an election,” she said, citing how difficult it is to figure out the varying rules of different states and counties. Where fraud does commonly occur is in the manipulation of the final numbers and purposefully keeping people away from the polls. Her research pointed to Republicans and specifically Trump stirring up controversy over voter fraud even when it’s almost nonexistent, and using this as leverage for voter suppression.
Barry Burden, a professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, focused on voting by absentee ballot and its pros and cons. He said it is much more work than voting in person but is also a “lifesaver” for people who cannot get to the polls or choose not to for personal reasons. Because absentee ballots require mailing time, possibly influential information from the final days of the campaign will not factor in their vote. But even with voters moving toward early voting and voting by mail, voting on election day is still popular and the preferred method for many.
Absentee ballots and their use vary widely between states, Burden continued. In some states, like Oregon, voters are automatically mailed a ballot, but in other states like Texas, voters must request one, and fear of the pandemic is not considered a valid reason to vote by mail. High ballot rejection rates and incorrect ballot marking by voters are also problems, especially in states that lack experience with absentee voting.
Gabriel Ramon Sanchez, a professor of Political Science at University of New Mexico, discussed issues for Latino voters in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. A population of 32 million potential voters, Latinos are testing positive and dying disproportionally. Historically, they prefer to vote in person on election day, and have little familiarity with absentee voting, and doubt the system’s integrity. Sanchez warned we could see significantly lower turnout by Latino voters this year because of fears of mail fraud and COVID-19. As a group, Latinos also have low confidence in the health of democracy in the U.S., and are disproportionally affected by strict voter ID laws.
A Q&A, moderated by Tom Rice, distinguished research fellow in the Politics and Policy Research Program, and professor of Political Science, followed the presentations. The full event can be viewed below.