SciLine interviewed: Dr. Lisa Bryant, an associate professor of political science at California State University, Fresno. Her research explores election administration, voter behavior, public opinion, gender and representation, and political psychology.
How might the COVID-19 pandemic influence voter turnout and which candidate voters choose during this election cycle?
LISA BRYANT: I think one of the main ways that it might influence voter turnout is – and I think that we’re already seeing this play out to a large extent – that it might push people to become more likely to vote by mail if it’s available to them in their state because they might anticipate that vote centers or polling precincts are going to be crowded on Election Day. Often, those are not necessarily held in very large places, and so you could end up with lots of people waiting in line. Or if they are really following sort of COVID protocol and spacing people out, it could form very long lines or at least the appearance of very long lines, which might deter people from wanting to vote in person. So I think that we will see and are seeing already a large number of people choosing to vote by mail ahead of time.
There is, of course – some people don’t trust the vote-by-mail process, and so they’re going to choose to vote in person anyway. And so it might be more likely that people who have a higher level of trust in election officials or in government organizations are going to be more likely to vote by mail, and people with lower levels of trust will be more likely to go in person.
Which groups might be most affected by COVID-19 in their decisions to vote by mail or in-person?
LISA BRYANT: I think in terms of, like, which groups might be affected, the elderly might be more – or older voters might be more likely to want to vote by mail if they can and avoid crowds, since a lot of the narrative around COVID has been that they’re more susceptible to catching it and have, you know, worse cases when they do test positive than younger people, and so they’re probably more reluctant to go vote in person.
The people who are probably more likely to go vote in person are younger voters who tend to utilize absentee ballots less than older voters already, even pre-COVID, and people who maybe have moved recently, which also tends to be younger voters and people of lower income. They tend to be more mobile, and so maybe they, you know, didn’t get their registration ahead of time, but they can do – in states that allow – sort of a same-day registration. And so they might be more likely to go vote in person as well.
What is known about the factors that influence different age groups as they choose whether to vote and which candidates to pick?
LISA BRYANT: What we know about age and voting is that older voters tend to be more reliable voters. So voters, say, over the age of 45 up to about 75 or 80 are pretty reliable voters, and they turn out in the highest numbers. However, there is a lot of voter enthusiasm among younger voters this year.
What makes an opinion poll reliable?
LISA BRYANT: Public opinion polls – one of the things to take into consideration is who are they asking, who are they polling? Is it just all Americans who are over 18? Is it registered voters? Is it likely voters? Because when you ask the questions based on those groups, you might get some variation in the response patterns. So everybody over 18, that’s great. But if 40% of those people don’t turn out, you know, there might not be randomness in who doesn’t turn out to vote. So if you have registered voters, those tend to be a little bit more reliable. And then likely voters – the problem with polling likely voters is you tend to overrepresent strong partisans. And so you have to account for the fact that they might be a little bit more – less flexible, you know, less – you don’t get that sort of persuadable voter that you might get if you just look at registered voters. So there really is – and I hate to sound cliche – like, sort of a science that goes into polling. And a big part of that is who is your sample, and who are you actually asking the questions? Because do the people that you ask the questions actually represent who shows up on Election Day?
What do polls tell us about which parties are favored by different racial and socioeconomic groups?
LISA BRYANT: So we certainly have really well-established public opinion research firms. And generally speaking, those would show that, you know, white male voters tend to still be conservative, white women are sort of divided between the candidates, although we are seeing some indications on the polls that sort of white middle-class women are leaning more towards Biden this year. And then we see – they do show us, you know, that consistently – and this is not surprising – that younger voters tend to lean more Democratic. And by and large, people of lower economic status tend to lean Democratic. The crux there is really about turnout because those also tend to be the groups that have lower turnout.
Have polls provided insight into how candidate choice may vary by socioeconomic or racial categories in the upcoming election?
LISA BRYANT: I think that we’ll see some of the classic breakdowns. I think, you know, the Trump campaign, for example, has been really trying to target African American males and try and break up some of the voting bloc that is the Black community. So we know that they tend to vote – about 95% of the time – for Democratic candidates. And I expect that, again, the overwhelming majority of that community will vote for Democratic candidates.
I think that also the Trump campaign has made some inroads into the Latino community. And you see a lot of groups popping up with Latinos for Trump. But again, I think that the majority of Latinos will probably lean Democratic. I think that white voters are more split. But like I said, I think that, you know, white men not overwhelmingly, but I think about 55% tend to be Republican and polls indicate will support Trump. And white women are a little bit more closely divided. And so it’s kind of interesting that we might come down to talking about the exact same socioeconomic and demographic groups this election that we did in 2016 when we look at how the vote turns out.
How have public perceptions of fraud in U.S. elections shifted in this election cycle and in general?
LISA BRYANT: After 2016, when both candidates – both Clinton and Trump talked about hacking and rigging. And they talked about them in very different ways, right? There was the idea that illegitimate people, illegitimate voters, would be able to vote. But then there was also the concern about Russian hacking or interference or sort of a widespread electronic hacking of the system and changing vote tallies.
I think that that really geared people up to think about voter fraud in a new way. So we do see that concerns about voter fraud or the idea that the election will be – the results will not be legitimate because of voter fraud, whether it’s because people think that the election officials themselves are changing results – which is a thing that people actually believe that election officials do – whether it’s that kind of fraud or whether, again, there are a lot of people who think that our voting equipment is not up to date and can be hacked and that there are groups out there – again, the Russian interference rhetoric is very prevalent among some groups, right? That rhetoric is out there. All of that has contributed, I think, to more concerns about election fraud and the legitimacy of the results in this election. And so it’s not really just like, oh, this is a 2020 thing, it’s, like, sort of been ramping up over time.
What should U.S. voters know about election administration?
LISA BRYANT: Our local election officials, our county clerks, our board of elections are the ones that are responsible for counting your ballots and handling your ballots. And so that is really made up of people from across the entire political spectrum. They work well together across states. They have organizations where they talk about best practices, how to keep the elections safe, how to keep it secure, how to verify voters, how to make sure every ballot gets counted to the best of their ability. They focus a lot on voter intent – right? – trying to make sure that if they can determine the intent of your ballot, that ballot will be counted. And so I think that that’s something important for people to remember; that it’s not, you know, one big agency counting all the ballots or even one office counting all the ballots in a state. It really is a group effort by clerks across the state to try and make sure that we have really secure and accurate elections. And so they’re going to be very busy this year. It’s a big election with a lot of turnout. So I think, you know, be patient with them.
But if you have any questions about the way they’re doing anything, you should just call them. Most election clerks allow observing. People can go and watch counting. They can go watch the process themselves. And so I highly encourage people, you know, always go to your local election clerk for information. Don’t rely on hearsay on social media or the Internet. Just go straight to the source and be patient with them, right? Let them do their job. Let them count the ballots. And we’ll see what happens.