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Poll: One-third of NC voters have doubts about voting by mail

Posted September 18, 2020 4:00 p.m. EDT
Updated September 18, 2020 6:41 p.m. EDT

— A third of likely North Carolina voters have little to no confidence that votes cast by mail in the coming election will be counted correctly, according to a WRAL News poll released Friday.

SurveyUSA polled 596 likely voters statewide between Sept. 10 and Sunday for the exclusive poll and found that only 21 percent plan to vote absentee by mail, which is lower than estimates by state elections officials. The responses have credibility intervals of +/-5.6 percentage points.

Only 24 percent of those polled said they have "full confidence" that mailed ballots will be counted fairly and accurately, with 33 percent expressing "some confidence," 21 percent "little confidence" and 15 percent no confidence whatsoever.

The confidence varies significantly by political party.

Forty-two percent of Republicans said they had little or no confidence in the process. For Democrats, it was 28 percent. Independents hewed closer to Republicans, with 39 percent saying they had little or no confidence mailed ballots would be counted correctly.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked voting by mail, though his own party has asked Republicans in North Carolina to use it. The president sometimes draws a distinction between traditional absentee voting, where a voter must request a ballot, and universal voting by mail, where ballots may be sent to people whether they ask for them or not.

North Carolina doesn't have universal voting by mail. In fact, it's forbidden here by law, though anyone may request a ballot and vote by mail if they wish. There's also a new online tracking system that lets people follow their ballot through the process to confirm it has been received and counted.

This system was implemented this year as part of a series of election reforms meant to prepare the state for voting in a pandemic, which officials expect to cause a massive uptick in absentee voting by mail. Those reforms were bipartisan, with the Republican majority in the General Assembly backing them unanimously.

But the president has repeatedly lashed out at North Carolina's system specifically, telling supporters that, if they vote by mail, they should also show up at their polling places and try to vote again to make sure their mail-in ballot counted.

Voting twice is a felony, and state election officials, as well as Attorney General Josh Stein, have repeatedly cautioned people against taking the president's advice. Voting by mail is "safe and secure in North Carolina," the State Board of Elections has said, laying out a dozen reasons why in a news release earlier this summer.

Still, news broke this week that election officials in Mecklenburg County accidentally sent fewer than 500 people two absentee ballots. The state sought to assure people that the mistake was caught and that, even if someone tried to vote twice by mail, safeguards are in place that make that impossible.

"North Carolina’s statewide election management system will not allow a voter to vote twice in an election," State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell said in a statement. "Each absentee voter has a unique identifier barcode for their return application, and the state system will not permit two ballots from the same person to be accepted or counted."

The president's response, on Twitter, was less detailed: "RIGGED ELECTION in waiting!"

For Republicans, the lack of confidence is probably ties back directly to the president, according to Bruce Thompson, a Democrat, attorney and long-time political observer in North Carolina. For Democrats, it likely stems from concerns with the U.S. Postal Service, which Trump donor Louis DeJoy, who lives in Greensboro, was put in charge of earlier this year.

"Like everything else in our current world, it is highly politicized, and folks have a tendency to only believe what the coach of their team says," Thompson said. "Trump gives a speech or sends a tweet saying the election is rigged, and his supporters pile on. MSNBC does a segment on why the post office cannot be trusted, and the left buys into that conspiracy."

Thompson was on a panel this week dissecting a separate poll, commissioned by the AARP. Among other things, it looked at confidence in mail-in voting among voters age 50 and up.

That poll found that, among people who plan to vote for Democrat Joe Biden this year, roughly 68 percent were either somewhat or very confidence that votes sent through the mail would be counted accurately.

That fell to 17 percent for Trump voters.

In the WRAL News poll, 39 percent of voters ages 50 or older said they have little or no confidence mailed ballots will be counted correctly. About 33 percent of younger voters feel that way.

People who classify themselves as upper middle class or wealthy (49 percent), Latino respondents (39 percent), urban residents (34 percent) men (31 percent) and suburban residents (29 percent) all had above-average numbers of respondents who expressed full confidence that mailed ballots were be handled correctly.

Meanwhile, people with a high school education (43 percent), those who describe themselves as working class (42 percent) and rural residents (42 percent) all had above-average responses for having little or no confidence.

Jonathan Felts, a Republican political strategist who appeared with Thompson on the AARP panel, said he encourages anyone nervous about voting on election day "to vote by mail and to have faith in that system."

"Don’t put it off until the last minute, and make sure you get a witness to sign it, but the system will work," he said. "I have parents with pre-existing conditions, and I don’t want them to take the risk. Prioritize your health, have faith in the system, and vote by mail or vote early when it is not as crowded."

As of Thursday, nearly 890,000 North Carolina voters had requested absentee ballots, which is more than 12 percent of registered voters. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 27.

Forty percent of those polled said they plan to cast ballots in person during the early voting period, and another 35 percent said they plan to vote on Election Day.

Again, there are stark political difference between people's planned method of voting, with Democrats twice as likely as Republicans (29-14 percent) to vote by mail. Nearly half of Republicans said they will vote on Election Day, compared with 29 percent of Democrats.

Although they are at higher risk for coronavirus, people age 65 or older are almost three times as likely to vote in person early or on Election Day as to vote by mail (72-27 percent).

Parents also were more likely to vote in person than by mail. Only 16 percent of people with a child in K-12 school and only 10 percent of single parents said they plan to cast an absentee ballot. More than three-fifths of single parents say they will go through early voting, while almost half of K-12 parents plan to vote on Election Day.

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