Stein addresses vote-by-mail debate during OpenRICE webinar

Close-up Of Person's Hand Putting Letters In Mailbox

If you ask voters in Harris County how they would prefer to cast their ballots during the pandemic, a new survey indicates most Democrats would tell you they’d rather vote by mail and most Republicans would tell you they’d rather vote in person.  But people in both parties say they probably won’t vote at a polling place that doesn’t take precautions against the coronavirus.

Robert Stein
Robert Stein

Those are some of the conclusions drawn from recent polling presented by Robert Stein, the Lena Gohlman Fox Professor of Political Science at Rice who is an expert on voting behavior and election administration. Stein discussed the survey of voters and poll workers — conducted from late March to early May in collaboration with the Harris County Clerk's Office and Rice professors Claudia Acemyan, Philip Kortum, Elizabeth Vann and Dan Wallach — during a one-hour webinar June 12 sponsored by the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies' OpenRICE initiative.

Voting by mail has become a flashpoint of partisan dispute during the pandemic. Democrats have been calling for expanded mail balloting as a way of increasing turnout at a time when many Americans might be afraid to go to the polls.  Republicans, including President Trump, have argued that more mail balloting will open the door to widespread vote fraud.

“By a significant majority, Democrats, women and voters over 65 prefer mail-in voting,” Stein said.

A day after President Donald Trump announced he was against voting by mail, Stein said the pollsters saw a notably decline in the percentage of Republican voters who said they were in favor of voting by mail.  Stein found the drop to 34% from 41% puzzling because so many Republicans have voted by mail in previous presidential elections.

“Republican voters follow the lead of their party and president,” Stein said. “I honestly believe that he (President Trump) is wrong. This is not a partisan issue.”

Nonetheless, Stein expects the issue to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Let me be clear, there is no partisan advantage to vote by mail,” he said. “And it does reduce cost and increase voter turnout.”

Turnout has substantially increased in states that have implemented expanded vote-by-mail systems amid COVID-19, such as Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Utah, Stein said. Voting by mail also saves states money, he said, because paying for ballots and postage is cheaper than paying for poll workers and paying rental fees for polling places.

Elections officials nationwide have voiced concern over whether enough poll workers will report for duty in November. Many of these seasonal employees are retirees, whose age puts them in higher risk groups during the coronavirus pandemic.

More than three-fourths of poll workers surveyed said they are somewhat or very likely to work the polls in November if they are provided with personal protective equipment, Plexiglas screens, distancing requirements and one person voting at a time.

Stein said there are ways to enhance the safety of poll workers and voters that don’t involve court fights and partisan squabbles. Early voting could be expanded to reduce the density of voters at polling locations. Election centers could use large open spaces to increase social distancing, he said.  Stein also suggested opening polls one hour earlier and closing them one hour later than usual.

But the survey also indicates election officials should prepare to take significant health precautions to attract voters to the polls.

“More than 30% of Democrats compared to only 9% of Republicans are either somewhat or very unlikely to vote at a polling location with only social distancing.”