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Voters anxiously approach an unusual election – and its potentially uncertain aftermath

Voters cast ballots early at the registration and elections office in Columbia, South Carolina, on Oct. 6, 2020. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

With about a month until Election Day and early voting already underway, many Americans are approaching the presidential election with a sense of uncertainty that goes beyond their traditional concerns over whether their candidate will come out on top. These worries predate President Donald Trump’s recent comments suggesting that, because of the potential for problems with voting by mail, the election will be so flawed that he may not relinquish his office.

Share of voters who expect it will be difficult to vote has more than tripled since 2018

And this uncertainty existed before the disclosure that Trump had contracted COVID-19, as have other White House staff.

It is difficult to recall an election in which the public has had such a wide array of concerns about the election process and its outcome.

In a survey conducted in late summer, three-quarters of Americans said it is likely that Russia or other foreign governments will attempt to influence the presidential election. Earlier this year, two-thirds (67%) said it was very or somewhat likely that the coronavirus outbreak would significantly disrupt Americans’ ability to vote in November.

Interest in the election is as high as it has been in two decades, a separate summer 2020 survey found. For instance, 75% of voters say they have thought quite a lot about the election – higher than for most other elections dating back to 1992. Yet voters increasingly view the formerly routine act of casting a ballot as a something of a challenge. In August, just half of registered voters expected it would be easy to vote in the November presidential election, down 35 percentage points since before the midterm elections of 2018.

In an era of growing partisan polarization, Americans widely agree on their priorities for the conduct of fair and secure elections. In 2018, nine-in-ten (90%) said it was very important that elections are free from tampering. Sizable majorities also said it was very important that no eligible voters are denied the opportunity to vote (83%); that voters are knowledgeable about candidates and issues (78%); that there is high turnout in presidential elections (70%); and that no ineligible voters are permitted to vote (67%).

Yet Republicans and Democrats had stark differences in evaluations of how the nation was doing in achieving these goals. They even had widely divergent perceptions about whether there is, in fact, high turnout in U.S. presidential elections: 73% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents viewed voter turnout as high, compared with only about half of Democrats and Democratic leaners (52%).

Since the coronavirus outbreak began in March, Democrats have been far more likely than Republicans to express worries about voting during a pandemic and the integrity of the election itself.

In April, relatively few Americans – just 14% – said they were very confident the presidential election would be conducted fairly and accurately, though another 45% were somewhat confident.

In April, 75% of Republicans – but fewer than half of Democrats – were confident the presidential election would be conducted fairly and accurately

Fewer than half of Democrats (46%) were even somewhat confident in an accurate and fair election, compared with 75% of Republicans. And Democrats were deeply concerned over whether all citizens would be able to vote: Just 43% of Democrats said they were very or somewhat confident all citizens who want to vote would be able to do so, while about twice as many Republicans (87%) were confident all citizens would be able to vote if they wanted to.

If voting during a pandemic – and the prospect of foreign governments interfering in the election – have raised concerns among the public, this election also is overshadowed by persistent uncertainty about what comes after voters have rendered their verdict on Nov. 3.

Trump has already sought to cast serious doubt on the validity of mail ballots – the grounds for his refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. State courts have become a battleground for lawsuits around voting rules, and a number of media organizations are warning of the possibility that the winner of the election may not be known until days or even weeks after Election Day.

Of course, such a delay would not be unprecedented. In the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, the results were not known for more than a month after the election, when the Supreme Court weighed in to halt a recount sought by Gore, thus handing Florida’s 25 electoral votes – and the election – to Bush.

In 2000, just half of voters said it ‘really mattered’ who won the presidency; this year, 83% express this view

That was a different era, one in which there was far less partisan acrimony and voters saw less importance in the outcome of the election than they do today. Twenty years ago, just half of voters said it really mattered; as of August, 83% express this view.

It is impossible to predict with certainty how the 2020 election will turn out. Similarly, there is no way to know how the public may react to the possibility of a disputed election that leads to a long period in which the results are not known or any of a number of other possible electoral outcomes.

However, some recent national surveys have found that majorities of Americans have at least resigned themselves to the possibility that they will not know the election winner on the evening of Nov. 3. And that sentiment, unlike so many others relating to politics in this polarized era, is shared equally across party lines.