As Election Day draws closer, it is difficult to recall a presidential election for which the act of voting has been more contentious and potentially more confusing. Voters living in states with different voting procedures have divergent views about the challenges of voting this fall – with the sharpest differences among those who support Joe Biden for president, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis.
In general, voters in states where elections are conducted solely by mail or where absentee ballots are widely available are more likely than those in other states to say it will be easy to vote for them personally. About six-in-ten registered voters (61%) in the five states where elections are conducted entirely by mail expect voting to be easy. That compares with about half (53%) of voters in the four states and Washington, D.C., that do not conduct their elections entirely by mail but will be mailing ballots to all registered voters, and in the 34 states where mail ballots are available to any voters by request this year (51%). (See the appendix for details about the state classification.)
How we did this
Pew Research Center has for years tracked Americans’ attitudes towards policies that regulate voting and their beliefs about how well the system is working. This post explores partisan differences about voting by mail, an issue that has come to the forefront in this election year.
For this analysis, we surveyed 11,001 U.S. adults between July 27 and Aug. 2, 2020. All participants of the study are members of the American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that Pew Research Center recruits through national, random sampling of residential addresses. All U.S. adults have a chance to be selected to participate in the survey. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.
A smaller share of voters (44%) in the seven states where an excuse – not including concerns about the coronavirus pandemic – is required in order to vote by mail say voting will be easy this year. (States continue to modify their election procedures. For this analysis, states were classified based on the rules that were in place on Aug. 14, 2020.)
But these differences are almost entirely the result of variations in the expectations of Biden supporters in these different types of states. Among all Biden supporters, just 40% say they expect it will be easy to vote in the November elections, while 60% say it will be difficult, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. By contrast, a majority of registered voters who support Donald Trump (64%) expect it will be easy to vote.
Just 31% of Biden supporters who live in states where excuses are required to vote absentee (and where concerns about COVID-19 are not acceptable as an excuse) expect it will be easy to vote this fall. The share of Biden supporters who say voting will be easy for them personally rises to 39% among those living in states where any voter can request a mail ballot (either for any reason or because of COVID-19 concerns) and to 45% among those living in states that will be mailing ballots to all registered voters as an alternative to in-person voting. Among Biden voters living in the handful of states that conduct their elections entirely by mail, nearly six-in-ten (57%) say voting will be easy.
Trump supporters’ views do not vary significantly across states with different voting laws (there was an insufficient sample for analysis of Trump voters in states that vote entirely by mail).
Supporters of both major candidates living in states where mail voting will be made widely available to all voters are more likely than those living in other states to report that they would prefer to vote by mail this year. Still, Biden supporters are much more likely than Trump supporters to want to vote by mail this year, even when taking their own state’s policies into account.
For instance, 40% of Biden supporters who live in states that require an excuse that is not coronavirus-related to vote by mail say they would like to vote by mail this year, but just 10% of Trump supporters in these states say this.
In states where all voters cast their ballots by mail, about nine-in-ten (89%) Biden supporters prefer this mode of voting, compared with roughly four-in-ten (43%) Trump supporters living in universal vote-by-mail states.
Racial and ethnic differences in vote by mail preferences
Among all registered voters, there are wide racial and ethnic differences in preferences for voting by mail, with White (37%) and Black (37%) voters less likely than Hispanic (48%) and Asian American (62%) voters to say they would prefer to vote by mail.
To some extent, these differences reflect both the partisan leanings of different racial and ethnic groups, as well as geographic variation. But differences are evident even when controlling for those factors.
For example, 58% of Biden supporters say they would prefer to vote by mail in November, but Biden voters who are Black are much less likely than other Biden voters to say this – just 38% express a preference for mail voting (33% say they would prefer to vote in person on Election Day and 25% prefer to vote early in person). By comparison, clear majorities of White (65%) and Hispanic (58%) Biden voters say they would prefer to vote by mail.
Part of this difference between Black voters and others is that Black voters are much less likely to live in states with universal mail voting or where all voters will be mailed absentee ballots. While 21% of all voters live in these states, that compares with just 10% of Black voters. Yet even accounting for differences in the geographic distribution of voters, Biden supporters who are Black are less likely than Biden voters of other races and ethnicities to say they prefer voting by mail.
Differences in vote preference are less pronounced among Trump voters along demographic lines. However, there are ideological divides.
About two-thirds (68%) of Trump supporters who say they are very conservative express a preference for voting in person on Nov. 3, while 19% say they would like to cast their ballots in person before Election Day and just 11% say they would like to vote by mail. While most liberal and moderate Trump voters also express a preference for in-person voting, they are about twice as likely as very conservative Trump voters to prefer to vote by mail this year (22% vs. 11%).
Categorization of absentee voting policies by state
This analysis uses data collected by the New York Times and the Washington Post on the most recent policies regarding voting across the states, last updated on Aug. 14, 2020.
States in the category “All vote by mail” are states with a permanent policy in which all voting is conducted by mail. States in the category “Ballots mailed” are states where all voters are allowed to vote absentee and plan to mail ballots to all registered voters for the 2020 presidential election. States in the category “Excuse required (including COVID-19)” include all states where absentee voting is allowed for all. These states may be further classified as any one of the following: states that will send absentee ballot applications to all, states that will allow no-excuse absentee voting, states that will allow voters to cite concerns about COVID-19 as an excuse to vote absentee, and/or other changes to absentee voting policy. States in the category “Excuse required (not including COVID-19)” are states with policies in which an excuse is required to vote absentee and concerns about COVID-19 are not deemed acceptable.
About Pew Research Center Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts.