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Why Fewer People Appear To Be Voting By Mail Than Expected


So President Trump spent the last moments of the debate last night repeating these false claims about mail-in balloting.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can't go along with that. And I'll tell you what, from a common-sense...

CHRIS WALLACE: And what does that mean, not go along? Does that mean you're going to...

TRUMP: I'll tell you what it means.

WALLACE: ...Tell your people to take to the street?

TRUMP: It means you have a fraudulent election.

GREENE: The president said he would only accept the results of the election if there is not evidence of widespread absentee ballot fraud. We should say there has never been evidence of that in U.S. elections. But there is data now coming out about how the president's language and other factors could actually be changing people's opinions about voting by mail this fall.

NPR's Miles Parks covers all things related to voting and elections and is with us this morning. Hi, Miles.


GREENE: So you cover this stuff. I know you're listening particularly closely to some of what the president was saying there toward - in the final stages of the debate. I mean, tell us more about what you heard from him.

PARKS: Yeah. It really was sort of kind of a greatest hits of all of President Trump's really baseless claims about voting. The president referenced a number of states and incidents last night. He talked about New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia - kind of rapid-fire mentioned all of these isolated incidents. And most of these incidents he's talking about are based on some nugget of truth. There were a few discarded ballots, for instance, discovered in Pennsylvania recently. But they seemed to be the result of an election worker - a new election worker basically making a mistake, not fraud. In Virginia, they did accidentally mail duplicate ballots to a tiny percentage of voters.

But what Trump doesn't mention when he talks about instances like that is that Virginia has safeguards in their process basically to make sure nobody votes twice. So there's a big difference between some of these isolated administrative errors, which honestly should have been expected with such a quick expansion to vote-by-mail - there's a difference between these errors and the idea of fraud, which, as you mentioned, we know is just incredibly rare in U.S. elections.

GREENE: Yeah. Well, I mean, we've talked a lot about what the president has said, and we've called out him for these baseless claims. I mean, the talk is not new. But you're doing reporting, it sounds like, on how this rhetoric about voting and specifically voting by mail could actually affect people's behavior during an election season.

PARKS: Yeah. What we're seeing, simply, is that U.S. voters say they're planning to vote by mail significantly less than they did earlier in the summer. You know, just a few months ago, estimates were that half of all voters or more would cast mail ballots. But now only a fraction of that - 35% of voters in recent polls - say they're going to vote this way.

And officials I've talked to are really worried about what this means. You know, voting officials, people in charge of actually administering the election, have had to consolidate polling locations in a lot of the country because of the COVID-19 crisis. And so if half of all voters in what's expected to be a record-breaking turnout election - if half of all those voters want to vote in-person on Election Day as they are - seem to be saying in these polls that are coming out recently, that could potentially mean really long lines and other problems.

GREENE: So as you look at kind of drawing these connections, I mean, is a lot of this the rhetoric, the words coming from President Trump, or is it broader? Is it, like, some of the news about the Postal Service and so forth?

PARKS: It seems at this point like a mix of both. You know, once Trump started his vote-by-mail messaging campaign a few months ago, we saw Republicans immediately responding to that, saying they wanted to vote in person. And then, in August, we had the Postal Service controversy kind of take over the political spotlight. And since then, fears about on-time mail delivery seem to be leading some Democrats now saying they're more hesitant to use the mail to vote.

I talked to Brianna Lennon, who's the county clerk for Boone County, Mo. She said she started really noticing a trend away from the mail in that state's August primary, when voters who had requested vote-by-mail ballots got those ballots but then were still showing up at her polling places.

BRIANNA LENNON: They're seeing post office stuff, and they're getting nervous. They're seeing litigation, and they're getting nervous, and they want to switch.

PARKS: She says the No. 1 question she receives at public events is, is it safe to vote by mail? You know, this is a system that's new for a lot of Missouri voters. They didn't have this option before. So all these public controversies can actually have an effect on how people feel about it because they don't have any sort of personal experience to draw from to make their opinions.

GREENE: I mean, so many election officials were getting ready for this big increase in voting by mail this fall. What is all this doing to their planning?

PARKS: I mean, that is the big question, right? This gets to one of the main reasons this is such a hard job. It's just almost impossible to correctly predict exactly how people are going to vote and which ways they're going to vote. We have this survey data, as we talked about, that shows people kind of moving away from vote-by-mail. But then there are also projections that show vote-by-mail numbers in some battleground states to be higher than people say they will be in the polls.

I talked to someone from this company Citizen Data, who's trying to project this out. And what she said basically is that some people may say they want to vote one way based on partisan affiliation or nervousness or whatever the reason may be. But when it actually comes down to it and they either get a ballot in the mail or they get a ballot request form in the mail, the ease and, frankly, the safety of using the mail instead of going to a polling place may actually win out.

GREENE: Such interesting reporting, Miles. Thanks so much. We appreciate it.

PARKS: Thank you, David.

GREENE: That's NPR's Miles Parks.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES' "FACELESS ARTIST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.