Almost half of American voters expect it to be difficult to cast their vote in the general election, three times the number who felt that way in 2018, according to a survey just released by the Pew Research Center. “It is difficult to recall an election in which the public has had such a wide array of concerns about the election process and its outcome,” said the center’s director of political research in releasing the findings.
Voter unease is reflected in another recent poll, from YouGov, which found that 47 percent of those surveyed disagree, or strongly disagree, with the statement, “the November election is likely to be fair and honest.”
FBI Director Chris Wray has warned Congress that Russia is stoking distrust through “a steady drumbeat of misinformation” on social media. However, a study from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society concluded that the president and the Republican party, aided by right-wing media, are “far more influential in spreading false beliefs.”
Despite confusions and misgivings, there are signs that the percentage of eligible voters who turn out in November, whether in person or by mail, could be the greatest in more than a century. The combination of increased participation, new rules and disruptive propaganda has forced a redefinition of the scope and scale of voter education.
“There’s a lot of bad information out there, and our voters are trying to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong,” says Wayne Thorley, Nevada’s deputy secretary of state for elections. “We’re getting over 3,000 calls to the office a week, when normally we would get just a couple hundred.”
A video on the Nevada Secretary of State’s YouTube channel takes voters through the vote-by-mail progress.
Local Media: Powerful and Free
A number of factors have contributed to this wave of calls, according to Thorley. For example, a postcard sent by the USPS to every residence and Post Office box in the country included information that was not applicable to Nevada, such as a reminder to make a ballot request 15 days before the election. Nevada voters don’t need to make such a request, as the state is mailing a ballot to every registered voter.
National media reports suggesting that the U.S. Postal Service won’t be able to handle the influx of ballots haven’t helped either. Election mail is only about 2 percent of the mail handled by the postal service in Nevada. “I know our USPS representatives are going to have no problem delivering the ballots and returning them to us on time,” says Thorley. “But voters read things that alarm them, and then they reach out to us.”
The CARES Act included $400 million for state election support, far less than the $4 billion election watchdogs and the House felt was needed. Nevada used almost all of its share to mail a ballot to every voter for the state’s primary election. “We were very confident that Congress was going to push through another relief package, but that never happened,” says Thorley. “Money that would have been available for voter education just didn’t materialize.”
Unable to do as much paid voter outreach as he’d like, Thorley has focused on earned media to fill the gap. “We’re doing as many interviews as we can,” he says. “We’ve been getting a lot of requests from national media, but we’ve been turning those down and focusing on local media that can get information to Nevada voters.”
Social media, primarily Facebook and Twitter and including sponsored content, have supported these efforts. A YouTube channel includes mail-in voting instructions as well as short profiles of mail-in voters. Thorley believes that behind-the-scenes videos covering the details of such things as signature verification and ballot processing can also give voters confidence. “You can pay a lot to get something produced, but you can also do it on a budget,” he says.
In addition to supporting universal vote-by-mail, the elections office has to mount an in-person voting effort that meets public health standards. The state is not saving money through this hybrid approach, but spending more. In the absence of additional federal election support for voter education, Thorley views local media as his best resource.
“It’s not too late,” he says. “They are very receptive to running stories about the election because they know their readers are interested.”
Social media graphics address common concerns about mail-in voting in Utah. (Courtesy of Weber County)
Transparency and Trust
Ricky Hatch is the county clerk and auditor for Weber County, Utah. His county has been voting by mail since 2015, but that doesn’t mean voters there are immune to inflammatory messaging.
“I’ve felt for a long time that misinformation and disinformation would be the biggest issue facing this election,” he says. “The most disruptive types of rumors are the ones that discourage people from voting by whatever method, whether in person or by mail.”
For Hatch, targeted outreach to campaigns, candidates and parties is essential to fostering trust. A tour of the elections office is his most powerful tool for winning them over and ensuring that all stakeholders will accept the outcome of an election.
“They are shocked at how detailed and controlled things are, how much attention we pay to every single vote, and they leave with confidence in the process,” he says. “The first thing we do when we have a strong detractor on social media is to invite them for a tour.”
Residents of Maricopa County, Ariz., can see for themselves what’s happening with mail-in ballots. They have 24-hour online access to multiple cameras trained on ballot tabulation spaces. (Image: Maricopa County)
Short videos on ballot management topics, along with social media messaging addressing specific voter concerns, support this push for transparency. Hatch has made peace with the fact that his job now involves marketing as well as election administration and upholding the election administrator “brand.”
“I’ve been an election official for 10 years now, and I’ve probably interacted with a thousand election officials across the country,” Hatch says. “We go to conferences, we go to seminars, we go out to dinner and talk about elections for hours, and it’s fascinating to hear about the challenges, similarities and differences in other states.”
The one thing that he and his colleagues don’t share is their personal political views, he says. “We just want to do a good job and have the headlines be about the candidates, not the administration of the election,” he says. “That’s something I wish the public could know.”
Voter information in Vietnamese on the Multnomah County website. Voters who speak languages ranging from Spanish and Chinese to Russian and Tagalog can also find help.
The Right Words
Multnomah County, Ore., home to more than half a million registered voters, is the most populous county in the state and also the most diverse. It may also have the nation’s most multilingual approach to voter education.
The Voting Rights Act requires jurisdictions to provide multilingual ballots and election materials if they are home to a single-language group of more than 10,000 individuals or more than 5 percent of the voting-age population. Multnomah’s demographics don’t impose any mandate under the act, but it has made a unique commitment to ensuring that language is not a barrier to voter equity.
In 2016, it made a commitment to translating all of its election messaging into the county’s five most commonly spoken non-English languages — Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Chinese and Somali.
“We want to make sure that we’re reaching all voters, whether English is their first language or not,” says Tim Scott, the county’s director of elections. “We translate the basic information in the voter pamphlet into multiple languages — how to register, how to vote, how to complete and return a ballot, where to call if you have questions.”
Press releases and social media are also translated, and the county’s election Web pages also offer some level of information, and language assistance, to speakers of Arabic, Korean, Japanese and Tagalog. The public response to these efforts has underscored how much they were needed.
“We’ve created a separate classification of bilingual election workers to help in all front-facing service areas, and if we don’t have someone who can provide interpretation in person, we utilize a phone translation service,” says Scott. Grants have made it possible for the county to make media buys in outlets such as Univision, Slavic Family Media and the Chinese Times.
Scott has found that the questions and concerns of residents from these populations vary according to their past experiences with government and American culture and the process of becoming a citizen.
“Sometimes, mistrust of government organizations is pretty high,” he says. “Often we are just providing resources to community organizations so they can provide direct outreach to their community.”
Chad Vader, a character created by two Wisconsin comedians for a popular Web series, gets a lesson in voting in the state. The video has been viewed tens of thousands of times.
Old School Support for Seniors
Wisconsin has the strictest voter ID law in the country. Last April, seniors who decided that voting by mail would be their safest option immediately ran into problems trying to work out how to upload their IDs and request a mail-in ballot.
“They were struggling,” says Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell. “They might have had a grandson who could help them, but they didn’t want anyone coming near them during the stay-at-home order.”
To smooth their path toward November, the county went old school, partnering with the League of Women Voters of Dane County (LWVDC) to launch a voter helpline to run alongside its Web-based outreach, promoting it primarily through television, radio ads and with signage. “A lot of yard signs went out,” says McDonell.
In addition to assisting seniors over the phone, helpline volunteers from the LWVDC and its partner organizations will travel to their homes when problems aren’t resolving. (In the months since April, both the seniors and the volunteers have developed a better understanding of how to keep such interactions safe.)
“A lot of seniors don’t have a camera or a smartphone, or know how to use it,” says McDonell. “The volunteers will take them to the DMV if that’s what they need.”
As the election approaches, Wisconsin is losing ground in its battle against the virus. “We have more deaths and more cases now than when this thing first hit,” says McDonnell. He expects 8 in 10 voters to cast their ballots by mail, as compared to the previous rate of 1 in 10.
Wisconsin law forbids election officials from opening ballot envelopes before election day, increasing the challenges involved in counting a flood of them. “That’s a different topic,” says McDonell.
Late-night host Stephen Colbert tells voters in Washington, D.C., what they need to know in a video from his "Better Know a Vote" series.
As the election nears, the noise from false and misleading information will crescendo. There’s no playbook for voter education when the country’s chief executive and leaders from his party are vigorously demeaning both the mail-in voting process and the precautions that could make in-person voting safe during a pandemic.
Fortunately, election officials are being supported in their voter education efforts by scores of organizations in the private and nonprofit sectors. The New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN are just some of the news sources that have created state-by-state voter guides, as have nonprofit groups including Democracy Works, Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters.
Divisive rhetoric about the election has generated chaos, but it has also fueled engagement and purpose. Innumerable Web- and human-based resources are now in place to help voters understand how to execute their right to vote in 2020.
Late-night host Stephen Colbert brings insouciance and incisiveness to Better Know a Ballot. Videos for each state featuring Colbert are peppered with fun facts and humor (every state is the smartest and greatest), provide details about voting and links to election offices.
“Are you hoping to vote in the 2020 election? Are you confused about how to request an absentee ballot in your state? Are you wondering why your frittata isn’t as firm as you’d like it to be?” the landing page asks.
“This website can help with two of those things!” it says, though it does offer advice about the ideal dairy/egg ratio for a frittata.