‘High interest’ could push 2020 election turnout to record levels despite coronavirus threat, study says

August 24-30, 2020

By Daily Record Staff 


Just as the Democratic and Republican parties gear up for their respective national conventions, the specter of the virus known as SARS-CoV-2 looms over the Arkansas voting booths with less than 75 days before the 2020 president election.


Despite those worries, a new national survey by the Pew Research Center found a majority of voters are saying they are “highly engaged” in the 2020 election and care passionately about who wins in November when it comes to making progress on important national issues.   


According to the 75-page study released on Aug. 13, 83% of registered voters say that it “really matters who wins” the presidential election, higher than the share who said this at similar points in any prior presidential elections dating back to 2000. In 2016, about three-quarters (74%) said the outcome of the election really mattered, while smaller majorities in 2012 (63%), 2008 (63%) and 2004 (67%) also said it really mattered who won.


Another three-quarters of voters say they have thought quite a lot about the election. The share of voters saying they have thought a lot about the election is slightly lower than the share who said this in 2016 (80%), though higher than for most other elections dating back to 1992.


A 56% majority say they are more interested in politics they were in 2016 – which was one of the highest interest elections in recent years (and when 60% said they were more interested in politics than they had been in previous elections).


Republican (86%) and Democratic (85%) registered voters are about equally likely to say this year’s election outcome really matters – and record shares in both parties say this. There are also no significant differences in the shares of Republican and Democratic voters who say they have thought quite a lot about the election (77% and 78%, respectively) or say that they are more interested in politics than they were in 2016 (57% and 59%, respectively).


Meanwhile, data compiled by the United States Elections Project, housed at the University of Florida’s (UAF) Department of Politic Science in Gainesville, Fla., showed that 136.7 million Americans participated in the 2016 election in the president race that pitted Republican Donald Trump against Democrat Hillary Clinton. At the time, the estimated voting population was more than 245.5 million, which put the turnout at 55.67%. 


Similar data compiled by the Arkansas Secretary of State’s Office shows that 1,130,635 cast a vote for the nation’s highest political prize in 2016 with 60.6% voting for Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, while Democratic runner-up Clinton and running mate Tim Kaine garnered 33.7% of the presidential votes. Turnout in that election was highest since 2014.


Based on recent primary elections and the 2018 midterm elections, UAF political science professor Michael McDonald projects 65%-66% of eligible voters will turn out for the Nov. 3 election, the highest since 1908 when turnout was 65.7%.


In a research note on Aug. 14, the Brookings Institute’s top political expert William Galston also predicted a massive turnout in November despite COVID-19 concerns, citing the Pew Center study.


“What the [Pew] data from 2020 tells us is that there is every reason to expect a record turnout in 2020,” Galston, also noting UAF’s 2020 election data. “We got a preview in 2018 when the turnout in the midterm elections was the highest since 1914, even though Republicans were less mobilized than Democrats, a difference unlikely to be repeated this year.”


Among other findings in the Pew study were questions on how most American voters plan to participate in the election amid the coronavirus outbreak. For example, Americans were divided in how they would prefer to cast their ballots: 40% say they prefer to vote in person on Election Day, 39% say they would prefer to vote by mail and 18% say they would like to vote in person prior to Election Day.


There was also a wide gap between Trump voters and Biden voters in their preferences for how they would like to vote: Nearly six-in-ten Biden voters (58%) say they would prefer to vote by mail, while just 17% of Trump voters say this. Most Trump voters (60%) say they would prefer to vote on Election Day in person.


White voters are substantially more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to say they prefer to vote in person on Election Day (43% of white voters say this compared with 33% of Black voters, 28% of Hispanic voters and 21% of Asian voters). To a large extent, this reflects the differences in the partisan leaning of these groups – for instance, 20% of white Biden supporters express a preference for Election Day voting, little different than the 21% of Hispanic Biden supporters and lower than the share of Black Biden supporters (33%) who say this. By comparison, 63% of white Trump supporters say their preference would be to vote in person on Election Day.


Hispanic and Asian American voters are more likely than white and Black voters to say they prefer voting by mail, with nearly half (48%) of Hispanic and 62% of Asian American voters preferring this method compared with 37% of both white and Black voters.


Voters with higher levels of education are more likely to prefer voting by mail to other alternatives. About half of those with a college degree (51% among those with a postgraduate degree and 48% among those with a four-year degree) say they prefer to vote by mail, while 29% of voters with no college experience say this.


Overall, 50% of registered voters say that they expect voting in the November election will be at least somewhat easy, with 23% saying they think it will be “very easy.” Trump supporters are much more likely than Biden backers to say that they expect voting in the November elections will be easy (64% of Trump voters say this, compared with 40% of Biden voters).


Voters’ assessments of how easy voting will be for them this year differ across demographic groups, with younger voters and Black and Hispanic voters less likely than older voters and white voters to say that voting will be easy. Voters younger than 30 are less likely than older voters to say they expect voting will be easy: 34% say this, compared with 48% of voters ages 30 to 49 and over half (55%) of voters ages 50 and older.


Along with the COVID-19 fears and recent concerns that financial woes and Trump administration reforms at the U.S. Postal Service could undermine mail-in and absentee voting, there are still some who believe foreign actors could still upset the 2020 election process. Russian interference in the 2016 election has long dogged President Trump, leading to a long Justice Department probe and an impeachment hearing during the entirety of his three and a half years in office.


In a statement on Aug. 7, National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina said the nation’s intelligence community found that Russia, China and Iran were actively looking to interfere in the 2020 election.


“Ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections, foreign states will continue to use covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States, and undermine the American people’s confidence in our democratic process,” said Evanina. “They may also seek to compromise our election infrastructure for a range of possible purposes, such as interfering with the voting process, stealing sensitive data, or calling into question the validity of the election results. However, it would be difficult for our adversaries to interfere with or manipulate voting results at scale.”


Evanina further clarified his assessment by noting “that many foreign actors have a preference for who wins the election, which they express through a range of overt and private statements; covert influence efforts are rarer. We are primarily concerned about the ongoing and potential activity by China, Russia, and Iran.”