Survey: Voters grow calmer about fairness of the vote count when the process is explained to them

Voting booths are set up on the campus of University of South Florida as workers prepare to open the doors to early voters on October 22, 2018, in Tampa. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Providing voters with information about the nuts and bolts of the vote-counting process is the best antiseptic against fears that the Nov. 3 presidential election might be stolen, as President Trump has been darkly intimating, according to a survey released Monday.

Trump has been complaining about the major increase in mail-in ballots during this election, alleging without basis in fact that such ballots are more susceptible to fraud, and has urged his supporters to be on the lookout for skullduggery on election day.

“I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it,” Trump said at one point, adding: “I hope it’s going to be a fair election. … But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a close Trump ally, has voiced similar concern notwithstanding widespread use of vote-by-mail in Florida. Democrat Joe Biden has expressed faith in the system.

Surveys conducted last month for the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found that many voters do expect a chaotic vote count, said Ben Winston of Strategies 360, a business and political communications, research, and marketing firm that polled voters about their expectations.

Reporting by States Newsroom, with which the Phoenix is affiliated, document similar concerns nationally.

Only 54 percent of the voters surveyed nationally were aware it might take election officials longer to count ballots this year, the surveys found. As many as 52 percent expected to have a winner declared within three days of Nov. 3.

But after hearing about why that might not be true — chiefly, because of the expanded mail-in vote and the complications entailed in counting them, including security checks against fraud — the proportion expecting official returns within a day of the election dropped by 14 points. And 66 percent of voters who initially expected results on election night understood it might take additional time.

Forty-four percent said the news media are too eager to predict the winner on election day, including 57 percent of Republicans. Accordingly, Winston urged news organizations to be circumspect about projecting a winner on election night.

“[E]lection analysts may want to preemptively discuss the so-called ‘red mirage,’ referring to the potential for the vote tally to shift toward Democratic candidates as more votes are counted, due to partisan differences in how people are likely to vote this year,” the survey report says.

“Setting voters’ expectations in advance that this may happen helps offset voters’ concerns about partisan manipulation of the results if the vote tally trends away from their preferred candidate,” it continues.

Finally, 63 percent of voters said they’d trust local officials to fairly count the vote and declare a winner — more than trusted “national pundits, partisan representatives, or even elected officials like governors or secretaries of state,” the survey findings read.

Counting delays including seesawing vote counts might worry voters, especially with “bad actors raising doubts about the integrity of the process during this counting stage,” he said.

But news reporters can alleviate the problem by casting inevitable polling glitches within context “and avoid giving the impression that everything is going to hell when it isn’t,” Winston said.

“The way to frame it is that this period allows election officials to ensure that every vote is counted and everything is accurate, he said. “And voters across the board really do agree with that concept — that it’s better to get it right than to rush the results.”

Winston discussed the findings during a Zoom news conference organized by Common Cause, which hoped to inform public expectations about the voting and vote-counting process, the organization’s Kati Phillips said.

Meanwhile, local supervisor of elections are preparing for any attempted disruption or voter intimidation on election day caused by any of the more fervid followers of the president or any other candidate.

Mark Earley, supervisor of elections in Leon County, in the state capital, predicted any problems will prove manageable. “Florida has very good laws about voter intimidation. We also have a law prohibiting open carry of weapons. Those two things, I think, work to our advantage,” he said.

In Marion County, elections supervisor Wesley Wilcox said, police agencies are monitoring social media “because that’s where a lot of it gets ginned up.”

He added: “They’re not going to come out and make any huge police force showing, but they are monitoring the situation. They want to be in the background and away from everything, but very approachable and very quick to respond to any sort of disruption.”

Michael Moline
Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.