WASHINGTON – About six in 10 registered voters nationwide say they want to cast their ballots before Election Day, a significant departure from previous years that will force the candidates to reshape how they campaign in the election season’s final weeks, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted by Ipsos.

Fear of the coronavirus and doubts about the reliability of mail voting after months of attacks from President Donald Trump are weighing heavily on Americans as they decide how to safely ensure their vote will be counted in this fall’s presidential election, according to the survey. In 2016, about 4 in 10 ballots were cast early.

The likely surge in early voting and mail ballots will test election systems nationwide, many of which are ill-prepared to contend with an unprecedented volume of early votes or help voters who are struggling to learn the rules around mail ballots.

Even as more voters want to mail their ballots than in 2016, just over 3 in 10 say they are “very confident” that their vote will be counted accurately if they vote by mail, compared with nearly 7 in 10 who say the same about voting in person on Election Day.

“It’s going to be pretty messy,” said Michael Hanmer, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland and the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement’s research director. “I don’t have a lot of confidence that things are going to go smoothly. The sheer volume of mail, the number of people who don’t know what the rules are and are going to request ballot too late – we’re going to see more of those issues come up.”

The survey also reveals a sharp racial disparity in perceptions of election integrity, with 71% of Black Americans saying it is easier for White citizens to vote than Black citizens compared to 34% of Whites who believe that to be the case. Similarly, 71% of Black voters say they prefer voting before Election Day, whereas 58% of White voters say the same.

The disparity is not as great when it comes how Latino and White voters perceive access to the polls, with 42% of Latino voters saying it is easier for White citizens to vote in elections than Latino citizens, roughly similar to 37% of White voters who hold that view.

More than 190 million Americans are now eligible to vote by mail this fall, after many states relaxed their rules because of the pandemic, according to a Washington Post tracker.

The poll finds a sharp increase in the percentage of voters who prefer to use an absentee ballot. Thirty-two percent want to send their ballot through the mail, while 17% want to take their ballot to an election office or place it in a drop box. That is nearly double the 26 percent of 2016 voters who cast ballots by mail or by dropping off a ballot, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Still, Trump’s unfounded claims that mail voting will lead to widespread fraud, along with the political storm that has engulfed the U.S. Postal Service, have helped fuel distrust about sending ballots via mail, the poll finds. Among those who plan to vote before Election Day, 24% say they prefer to cast their ballots via an official drop box, while 28% say they would like to show up in person at an early-voting location.

The finding suggests that a smaller proportion of the electorate will vote by mail in the general election than in some of the spring primaries, when several states saw majorities of voters turn to mail voting for the first time in history. In Wisconsin’s April 7 primary, for instance, 62% of voters cast their ballots by mail, according to the state election commission.

It also shows that election officials who have been gearing up for an influx of mail voting need to brace for huge turnouts at early-voting locations in the weeks leading up to Nov. 3.

“Voter confidence is a struggle for me at this point,” said Joseph Johnson, 50, of Palm Bay, Fla., an acquisitions manager and an independent who said he plans to vote early and in person for the Democratic nominee, former vice president Joe Biden.

“Mail will definitely be an issue, just because of what they’re doing with the post office,” he said. “My personal mail has been delayed for days on end, and I’m sure everybody else’s mail is the same. And I think that’s purposeful.”

The Post-U. Md. poll finds that 46% of voters say they are uncomfortable going to a polling place this fall, and a majority are worried about their family being infected by the coronavirus.

Those competing fears – of coronavirus infection and of untested mail-voting systems – have collided as Nov. 3 draws near, leaving voters two unpalatable options: choosing between the healthiest or what they perceive to be the most secure way to vote.

About 1 in 7 voters are concerned about both the risk of the coronavirus at in-person voting locations and the possibility that their vote won’t be counted if they vote by mail, the survey finds.

How voters feel about that choice depends heavily on their support for Trump, according to the poll, which finds that among voters who want to vote on Election Day, 48% say they definitely will vote for Trump, compared with 37% who want to cast their ballot on Election Day and say they definitely will not vote for him.

And although 71% of Republicans prefer to vote in person, that drops to 39% for Democrats, among whom 40% want to vote by mail. There is also a racial divide among Democrats, with Black Democrats much more likely to prefer voting in person than White Democrats.

One possible consequence of that partisan divide could be that initial election returns on the evening of Nov. 3, based primarily on Election Day vote tallies, could skew Republican, with the race narrowing as more and more mail ballots are counted.

It’s similar to a scenario that played out in the 2018 midterm election – prompting Trump to accuse Democrats of stealing several close congressional contests in California in which Republicans were ahead on the night of the election but lost after all ballots were counted.

This year, however, the majority of voters are already aware that the November vote tally could take far longer than in the past. According to the poll, 53% of voters expect it to take at least two to three days before the winner of the presidential race is known, and 25% say it could take a week or more.

The poll finds that Americans’ overall confidence in the election is roughly similar to that of four years ago; 62% are at least somewhat confident that votes for president will be counted accurately nationwide, on par with 63% in a Post-ABC survey in September 2016.

But partisanship shapes voters’ faith in election integrity, with Republicans far more likely than Democrats to say that voter fraud occurs often, while Democrats are similarly more likely to say that voter suppression and disinformation occur.

“I’m pretty confident my vote will count as long as I do it in person,” said Mike Bell, 42, a Republican radio station engineer from Enid, Okla., who said he definitely plans to vote for Trump. “That’s my main concern – mail-in ballots. I believe, like, they can be sent to deceased people. I’ve heard of people getting them in their cat’s name. People are getting double and triple votes. I don’t think that’s fair.”

In fact, states that have embraced universal mail voting have documented tiny rates of ballot fraud, data show.

Such views suggest that Trump’s attacks on mail voting have sunk in, with far fewer voters saying they are confident that their ballots will be counted accurately if they vote by mail than if they do so in person.

The poll reveals an additional force shaping voter attitudes: faith in the U.S. Postal Service, which under Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has faced recent operational changes, such as a reduction of overtime and limits on mail trips, that postal carriers said created backlogs nationwide.

The survey finds that 32% of voters are not confident that the Postal Service will deliver election ballots in a timely manner this fall, while 47% are “somewhat confident” and 20% are “very confident.”

The survey offers stark evidence that the 2020 presidential race’s final stretch could unfold unlike any in modern history, with a majority of voters making up their minds and casting their ballots long before Nov. 3.

Mail voting began last week in North Carolina, where by Thursday election officials had mailed about 737,000 absentee ballots, representing more than 10% of registered voters, according to data compiled by Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. By mid-September, 20 more states will begin mailing ballots.

“A lot of these voters are wanting to get their ballot banked and be done with it,” he said.

The high number of ballot requests is a measure not just of fear of the coronavirus but also of voter enthusiasm and engagement, Bitzer added.

Both the Biden and Trump campaigns have put an increased emphasis on early voting in voter contacts this year, with Republicans telling supporters in states such as Pennsylvania to request absentee ballots as far back as the spring. For voters who prefer to cast their ballots on Election Day, the campaigns are suggesting ways to do so safely through ads and direct outreach.

Still, the Post-U. Md. poll points to the potential for widespread confusion this fall, too, finding that upward of 3 in 10 registered voters are unsure who is allowed to vote by mail in their state, whether election offices will automatically deliver ballots or ballot applications, and when ballots must be submitted.

Almost 1 in 5 voters from states where a ballot must be requested erroneously believe a ballot or ballot application will be sent to them automatically.

Such confusion was probably inevitable in a year when election administrators and voters alike have embraced new methods of voting for the first time amid the coronavirus, said Hanmer, the University of Maryland political scientist.

The findings suggest that infrastructure and planning at the state and local levels will be crucial – such as the number of hours and locations for in-person early voting, or drop boxes where voters can deposit their ballots rather than trust the Postal Service. Some states don’t allow drop boxes at all.

Another urgent need, election officials say: more voter education in the campaign’s final stretch to reduce the risk that votes won’t be counted if voters make mistakes such as not signing their names on a mail ballot.

Already, election officials are coming up with creative ways to capture the attention of voters and teach them the rules. One election administrator in Dane County, Wis., produced a “Star Wars”-themed YouTube video this week featuring “Chad Vader” explaining how to vote by mail.

Hanmer, meanwhile, thinks the speed at which new voting systems have been adopted this cycle to accommodate the pandemic means there is only so much anyone can do to prepare.

“With so many people engaging in a process that they haven’t used before, there are going to be honest mistakes on their part,” he said. “There are going to be honest mistakes on the part of election officials. That’s inevitable. But the scale is going to be hard for us to predict and understand.”

The survey of 1,672 registered voters was conducted online among a random national sample from Aug. 24 to Aug. 31 by Ipsos for The Washington Post and the University of Maryland’s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement. The margin of sampling error for overall results among registered voters is plus or minus three percentage points.

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The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer contributed to this report.


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