August 18, 2020

With increased familiarity, Californians’ confidence in voting by mail grows, despite national Republican attacks; but many still need in-person assistance at the polls and education about options.

BERKELEY, CA: Across racial and ethnic groups, Californians reject the idea that mail-in votes are more likely to be compromised, and overwhelmingly trust the U.S. Postal Service to deliver their vote-by-mail (VBM) ballots, a new statewide survey shows.

The poll of 8,328 registered California voters investigated the prevalence of Californians’ shift to VBM ballot use, reasons for trust or mistrust in mail-in voting, and misinformation about the voting method. Overall, it found that familiarity breeds comfort: Those who have used VBM ballots are consistently less likely to express mistrust across a series of possible concerns.

The poll was conducted online in English and Spanish by the Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) at UC Berkeley and the Othering & Belonging Institute (OBI) at UC Berkeley, between July 21-27, 2020.

It found that 67.2 percent of Californians who have voted in the past say they cast a VBM ballot—either through the mail or by hand delivering the ballot to a drop box—most of the time. Of the remaining roughly 1 in 3 voters who usually vote in person, 37 percent say that they have used a mail ballot at least once in the past.

While previous research in California pointed to mistrust in the U.S. Postal Service as a source of discomfort with VBM, the IGS-OBI poll found widespread support for USPS. In 84 percent of cases, respondents said they agree with the statement, “I trust the U.S. Postal Service to deliver my ballot safely and on time to be counted.” (Note that the poll was conducted prior to widespread reporting on a slowdown in mail delivery due to changes in USPS leadership and the Trump administration’s opposition to fully funding the Postal Service.)

Moreover, this level of trust was consistent across lines of race/ethnicity, age, household income, and educational attainment. Trust dipped among those who usually do not mail their ballots (76 percent), and most markedly among voters who identify as “very conservative” (62 percent) or are registered as Republicans (65 percent).

Confidence was also high with respect to the security of voters’ mail-in ballots, as 84 percent said they believe their voting choices “are always kept secret” when voting by mail. This was a marginally smaller share than the 93 percent who said the same for in-person voting. Here too, Black, Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and young voters were no more likely to consider mailed ballots more vulnerable to breaches of secrecy than were white and older voters.

"This is encouraging news. It shows that people aren't buying the far right's claims that mail-in voting leads to fraud," john a. powell, director of the Othering & Belonging Institute, said. "And more importantly, it shows that Blacks and Latinxs aren't cynical about voting. With large majorities of Black and Latinx voters saying they will vote in November, the data suggest they are confident, willing, and eager to vote despite being repeated targets of voter suppression."

Nevertheless, there are notable differences across California voter groups in terms of needs for in-person voting assistance, and information about voting options. While only 19 percent of white California voters said it was “very important” to them to have in-person assistance at the polls, 27 percent of Black Californians said the same, and 38 percent Spanish-dominant Latinxs. Congruently, higher shares of Black voters (37.7 percent) and Spanish-dominant Latinxs (41.2 percent) say that they usually vote in person than the overall average for the state (32.6 percent).

The survey also points to a persistent age gap in Californians’ VBM ballot use. Compared to official data on VBM use in the 2016 election, a smaller share of young voters, and larger share of older voters aged 65 and up, report that they usually cast their votes with a VBM ballot.

Unsurprisingly, where voter groups have relatively less experience with VBM ballots, there are also greater needs for correct information about their use.

The most prevalent misunderstanding about VBM statewide concerned the deadline for county election officials to receive mailed ballots. According to the website of the Secretary of State’s office, “Vote-by-mail ballots that are mailed must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received by your county elections office no later than 17 days after Election Day.”

But a majority (59 percent) of California voters said they think mailed ballots must arrive by election day in order to be counted. This misunderstanding is more prevalent among 18-29 year-old voters (66 percent), Spanish-dominant Latinxs (73 percent), and registered voters who have yet to cast their first ballot (75 percent).

A smaller, but still significant share of Californians mistakenly believe that voters who receive a ballot in the mail may not vote at an in-person voting location. One in three of the state’s registered voters think this is the case—a share that is mostly steady across lines of age, race/ethnicity, and income. 

Finally, the survey offers guidance on how voter education programs can address gaps in trust and information. Although Californians overwhelmingly trust the USPS with their ballots, half of respondents reported that it would increase their confidence in voting with a VBM ballot if they were to hand deliver the ballot to a dropbox at a local library or school.

Even more (73 percent) said that it would increase their confidence to be able to track and receive notifications on the status of their VBM ballot as it travels by mail to the elections office. 

“What the survey results tell us is that we need to continue our education efforts to help empower voters to understand the voting process, inform them that vote by mail is safe, but more importantly, that in order to be a truly representative democracy, every single vote cast must be counted,” said Apolonio Morales, Director of External Affairs at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA). “The rules are clear: If the ballot is mailed by Election Day, it will be counted,” he added. 

The IGS-OBI poll is one of several qualitative and quantitative studies underway by the Othering & Belonging Institute to better understand how voting can be made accessible and convenient to Black, Latinx, young, and other under-represented voter groups in the Covid-19 pandemic context.

Media Contact
Marc Abizeid