This fall was always going to be a tumultuous time for the United States thanks to a nationwide election on November 3rd that will determine who will be president next year. Mail-in voting has been embraced as a way to keep voters safe from the pandemic, and although many states have successfully held elections via mail and vote, there are real questions about how to expand it to the rest of the nation.
In a new Fordham News podcast, political science professor Monika McDermott, Ph.D., explains why it’s essential that we make plans to vote right now. McDermott, Ph.D., the director of Fordham’s master’s program in elections and campaign management. taught the first cohort of students enrolled in the Graduate School of Arts and Science’ advanced certificate in public opinion and survey research this past spring. Their capstone project was the Fordham poll, a survey designed to address areas of American life that had been overlooked by most pollsters and was retooled to reflect life during the pandemic.
For information about early voting and absentee voting in your state, visit USA.gov/absentee-voting.
For information on early voting in New York City, visit vote.nyc/page/early-voting-information.
To learn about provisional ballots, visit this explainer at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Full transcript below:
Monika McDermott: It’s really going to be a trial for our democratic system, and how much confidence people have in our government and how much confidence people have in our voting system. And that’s what we’re waiting to see, is how it all plays out.
Patrick Verel: This fall was always going to be a tumultuous time for the United States thanks to a nationwide election on November 3rd that will determine who will be president next year. But with less than 40 days left until election day, the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging, making it even more challenging. It’s not clear how safe it will be for most Americans to vote in person, and although many states have successfully held elections via mail and vote, there are real questions about how to expand it to the rest of the nation. To get a handle on this problem we sat down with Monika McDermott, a professor of political science and the director of Fordham’s master’s program in elections and campaign management. This spring, McDermott taught the first cohort of students enrolled in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ advanced certificate in public opinion and survey research. Their capstone project was the Fordham Poll, a survey designed to address areas of American life that had been overlooked by most pollsters and was retooled to reflect life during the pandemic. I’m Patrick Verel, and this is Fordham news.
How confident are you that the upcoming election will go smoothly?
MM: I would like to say I’m confident, but in reality I don’t think I have a lot of confidence at this point that it’s going to go smoothly.
PV: What worries you most?
MM: Well, we’re in the middle of this perfect storm of everything coming together at once, and obviously the coronavirus is the number one problem that we’re facing. You’ve got the tightness of the presidential race in some states, and added to that you’ve got issues with mailing balloting and the differences in rules and regulations across the state. And you’ve got concerns about the postal service, and you’ve got CIA warnings of Russian influence in the election, and also China and Iran meddling in the election. And then to add to that, you’ve got what’s been happening over the past, since about 2012, you’ve got closing of polling stations in high minority areas that are potentially suppressing the vote for some people. And that’s also coming to a head in this election.
PV: Even before the pandemic, five states actually conducted all their elections primarily by mail. Yet many have raised concerns about the validity of mail-in and absentee ballots, including the president. Is there an actual difference between mail-in voting and absentee voting?
MM: So yeah, there is a technical difference between those two. So the states that do mail-in voting, all-mail voting, those states send out ballots to everyone who is registered to vote automatically. If you’re talking absentee voting that technically is people have to request a ballot from the state and receive it. And they have to supposedly have an excuse, although some states are waving that this year, such as New York, they’re saying COVID is a good enough excuse. And so you have to actually take the active step to request a ballot, whereas in mail-in voting, basically, they’re giving you, they’re sending it out to everybody and that’s Trump’s complaint here.
PV: But I mean, is there a difference in terms of one being more prone to being ripe for fraud?
MM: There’s no evidence of that. Places like Washington and Oregon say that they have no more fraud with their mail-in systems that they had before mailing systems. So, no, there’s actually no quantitative evidence that there is a difference.
PV: Now, last month the House passed a bill that would provide the post office with $25 billion in funds to help it deal with an unexpected increase in mail-in ballots this fall, the Senate opted not to pass it. That same week or roughly around that same time, postmaster general Louis DeJoy told the house oversight committee that the post office “we’ll do everything in our power and structure to deliver the ballots on time”. What do you make of all this? Is this something we should be concerned with at all?
MM: I think, yeah, there are reasons to be concerned. I do. There’s been mostly anecdotal evidence of slowdown of the mail service and given how much they’re going to need to be on the ball for this election, given the increase in mail balloting it’s concerning, it should concern everyone. Like I said, there’s anecdotal evidence that there could be problems just handling the regular mail delivery right now. And so when you think about the impact that all of these absentee ballots or mail-in ballots are going to have on the US postal service, it really is a little bit frightening.
PV: The thing that I’ve heard that could be problematic is where you have ballots that are cast in person, that are counted earlier. And then you have the mail-in ballots, which will be counted later. And so you run the risk that one candidate basically declares victory before all the ballots have been fully counted and then questions the validity of the mail-ins.
MM: That’s why there’s going to be conflict after this election, no doubt, because unless you do have a strong winner on election night, which there’s no reason to believe there will be one, unless you do have that, you’re going to have court cases and accusations of fraud and mistrust on both sides. And questions about the legitimacy of the next president. It’s really going to be a trial for our democratic system and how people, how much confidence people have in our government and how much confidence people have in our voting system. And that’s what we’re waiting to see is how it all plays out.
PV: A lot of the talk when it comes to these ballots is focused on the delivery, right? That some of them might not make it in time and there’s different levels of like, okay, it gets counted if it’s postmarked by a day, versus it gets a rise by a certain date. So there’s been a lot of focus on that. Are there any other things that you can think of that people should know about when it comes to these absentee ballots that might be areas of concern?
MM: Well, the problem with the system of absentee balloting in the United States is that every state has its own rules. And so the thing voters have to worry about is informing themselves of the rules of their state and abiding by those rules. And that means acting in time, allowing plenty of time for the whole process to happen for you to get your ballot and return it and then have it received by the government and then have it counted. So really it’s just a question of informing yourself about what the rules are. And we know from a lot of political science research that’s been done in the past, American voters aren’t good at informing themselves on rules. That’s not what they do. They’re used to habits, habituated behavior. And if we change it up on them, they’re going to be ballots that are returned after the date, they’re going to be postmarked late. And then they’re going to be questions about whether they’re valid and yeah, it’s going to look like Florida 2000 all over, but with a mail-in system, rather than with the hanging CHADS that we saw at that point in time.
PV: Yeah. I mean, I think I heard that as a percentage-wise, absentee ballots are rejected by a larger margin than votes cast in person. That’s just a fact because people just don’t do things right.
MM: And it’s not just the voters, it’s also the states. Sometimes the states, the post office actually, gets ballots that don’t have the scan codes that they need to have on them for them to process them appropriately. And so that’s a problem that a state might have. They might have envelopes, return envelopes that weren’t printed correctly. Or we actually had friends of ours who voted in the Democratic primary this year and they voted absentee and their envelope, their return envelope was too small for their ballot. So they actually had to call up the government and get another ballot or another return envelope sent to them. And so luckily they were doing this all in time and as far as they know their vote counted, but it was last moment and very frustrating for them.
PV: Do you think the accuracy of polls is affected in any way by the fact that so many people will be voting by mail?
MM: Well, it doesn’t really affect the day-to-day polling that pollsters do because they’re still running likely voter models and trying to estimate who’s likely to vote, which they’re taking into account absentee voting and mail-in voting. So they’re working with new models for that. So that is a little bit tricky, but they’ve been doing this for years and they’re very smart people and they know what they’re doing. I think the main problem, although this is being accounted for as well, are the exit polls that we’re used to getting on election day themselves, which are polls that come as people leave their polling places. Those are going to have to switch over to a lot of telephone polling of mail voters before the election. Now, they’ve already been doing this for years with places like Oregon and Washington, because they’ve had to, so they’re incorporating that into what they’re doing this year, but there could be some glitches there. That’s going to be interesting to watch.
PV: Wow. So this is really going to be unpredictable on November 3rd. It sounds like?
MM: Oh yeah. There’s very little chance that we’ll know any winner on November 3rd.
PV: Best case scenario, what do you think it’ll be announced? We’ll actually have a clear winner?
MM: Best case scenario, I would say within a few days of the election or inside a week, but that’s being a little bit optimistic. I think. So, I just think that a lot of states that aren’t used to dealing with the number of absentee ballots that they’re going to get, are going to have trouble counting them in time and that’s going to be what delays things. And it’s fine, it should be delayed. I mean, we want these votes counted and we want them counted accurately. The problem is going to be that, as you said, if there’s a red wave or even a blue wave and someone decides to claim victory before all the votes are actually counted, then that’s going to call into question the legitimacy of the election. And that’s going to be a major problem for us. But if we can just sit tight and wait for the election results to come in and wait for all the votes to be counted, then I think we’ll be okay.
PV: Has there been any polling done on what people’s expectations are for when the results will be revealed?
MM: I haven’t seen any polling on that. There’s some really interesting polling on how people are going to vote and how they feel about going to an all-mail system and things like that. And they’re very supportive of letting people vote by mail if they want to. But most people themselves say they’re going to vote in person.
PV: Really? In general, still?
MM: Yep. Either early voting. Yes. Those were August numbers I think I saw. Yeah. So they either vote early in person in states that allow it or in-person on election day.
PV: Well, what is the percentage of people in the United States who are actually planning to vote in person or in early voting?
MM: So according to the most recent numbers, I saw 48% of people plan on voting on election day and another 13% plan on voting in-person early voting.
PV: What do the polls tell us about American’s confidence in mail-in voting?
MM: As a general rule, people are skeptical. Almost half of people say that they think there’s going to be some kind of fraud involved in absentee voting. So it’s pretty split and of course, there’s a huge partisan split here, but slightly more believe that there will be fraud than believe that there will be very minimal or no fraud at all. The interesting thing though, is that you actually have, when you ask people, if they’re confident, if they vote by mail that their own vote will count, they say that they’re confident in that. So they’re confident that their own vote is fine, but they’re also convinced by the messaging that they’re getting from above that there will be some fraud involved if there are large numbers of absentee votes.
PV: That’s so interesting. So they believe their own votes will be counted correctly if they mail them in, but they believe everybody else who’s mailing in their votes are highly at risk for fraud?
MM: Yeah. This phenomenon we see with all kinds of things in the political science research. It’s an, I’m okay, but my neighbor’s not kind of thing. And what I think is happening is that people in red states are confident their vote will be counted because they’re confident that their government is doing a good job. But they believe there’s fraud overall, they just believe that fraud is going to happen in the blue states. And so they’re setting themselves up for a situation in which they can say all of Biden’s votes that came in after the fact, after November 3rd, those are fraudulent because there was fraud in those states because there’s a very big partisan split there. And I would imagine that’s what’s going on, is that people are thinking that their own absentee voting will be counted well in their state, but they don’t trust other states.
PV: What should people do to make sure their votes count?
MM: If you’re voting by mail or absentee, a lot of states that you can actually online track the status of your absentee ballot. So if you send it in, you can track it there online and make sure that it goes in and gets counted. So I would say, definitely do that, track your ballot, make sure it goes in. And if it doesn’t seem to have gone in by election day, then go in, if you feel like it and cast a provisional ballot at your polling place. Other than that, the only sure way to make sure your vote is candid is to actually vote in person. I hate to say that because I know there are people who are susceptible to the virus and who have underlying health symptoms and things like that, but that is the one certain way to make sure your vote counts.
PV: One thing that came up was this idea of casting a absentee ballot, and then going into the polling place and also casting a ballot. That was something that Trump had suggested in, I believe it was North Carolina and everybody said, “Oh, you’re suggesting that they all break the law.” But then I heard from a friend, a colleague, that you can do that kind of thing in New York State that that’s not considered breaking the law. What do voters need to know about casting a second ballot in person if they’ve already sent one in by mail?
MM: My understanding is that at least in New York and I don’t know about all the other states, my understanding is that if you have reason to believe your absentee ballot didn’t make it in on time, that you have a right to cast an in-person provisional ballot that will only be counted if your absentee ballot wasn’t counted. And so if they find two ballots for you, they will throw out the provisional ballot and they will count your absentee vote. But you can’t actually vote twice. Now, in all mail voting states, obviously you can’t do that. Those are completely reliant, but I would worry much less about votes not being counted in those states because there are systems that are set up and ready to deal with the influx of mail that they get. I’m just afraid that other states aren’t ready for it.
PV: It seems like that early voting is going to be a much more important factor in the election this time around, because you can be sure your vote will count because you’re going in person. But you can also minimize the risk of being exposed to the virus by going when there won’t be nearly as many people around, that seems like that’s the sweet spot right now.
MM: Absolutely. And yet you’ve only got 13% saying that they’re going to do early voting. So people seem to like the tradition of election day. And that’s the only thing I can think of is that they want to go in and vote on November 3rd and that’s the way they’ve done it and that’s the way they’re going to continue to do it. So yeah, we’ll see what the numbers actually show and how many people do vote early. But at this point, it’s a pretty small proportion.
PV: Is there anything that gives you hope when it comes to the election?
MM: Yes, I have hope in the American, I have faith in the American people. I believe that despite the coronavirus, despite all the problems we’ve seen this year and the disasters that have befallen on us from coast to coast, I believe that people will turn out to vote. I believe they care about who wins the election and I believe that they will make it happen in whatever way, shape or form they have to. If they have to stand in line forever, I think they’ll stand in line. If they have to do absentee voting, they’ll do it. I think I have faith that Americans will stand up for their democracy.
PV: For more information about your state’s rules on voting, including provisional votes in New York State visit fordham.edu/vote2020.