Democrats scramble to soothe voter fears about in-person voting ahead of November election

After months of warnings about the risks posed by in-person voting in a push to expand access to mail-in ballots, Democrats across the country are increasingly focused on communicating to voters that it is safe to cast their ballots in a voting booth.

The shift comes after a national legal campaign has successfully resulted in expanded access to mail-in voting in nearly every state — prompting an unprecedented shift in the way millions of Americans will be able to vote due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But as voting is set to begin in more states in the coming weeks, Democrats have settled on a strategy of emphasizing that all voting options, including in-person early and Election Day voting, are safe amid the pandemic.

Perhaps the most pointed urging for Democrats to physically go to the polls came from former first lady Michelle Obama’s primetime speech during the Democratic National Convention last month.

“We’ve got to vote early, in person if we can,” Obama said, as she urged Democrats to cast their ballots ahead of an election in which she said democracy itself was at stake.

The former first lady also did not miss an opportunity to urge voters to request their mail-in ballots as soon as possible. But her message to “grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks” and head to the polls was a notable change of emphasis compared to her party’s laser-like focus on mail-in voting since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Just Monday, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, cast their ballots in-person a day before Delaware’s primary. Biden and his allies have routinely encouraged mail-in voting, and Delaware allows all registered voters to cast their ballots by mail.

Increasing anxiety

Democrats across the country say that President Donald Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting, combined with growing concerns about US Postal Service delays and the prospect that Republicans might aggressively challenge the validity of mail-in ballots, have increased the anxiety among some Democratic voters that their mail-in votes might not count. And some Democrats fret that a delayed counting of mail-in ballots would increase the chances of Trump attempting to claim victory on Election Night.

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“Maybe 98% of the Black people I’m talking to are not trusting mail-in voting,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter. “I think there is a major consideration around voting in-person.”

“We also share some of the concerns around mail-in voting, but we want to keep that an option. The sweet spot for us is to vote early,” Brown said.

Brown said her organization and partner groups are securing thousands of cloth masks in anticipation of supporting in-person voting. She also expects that get-out-the-vote efforts, which have been modified due to Covid-19, will start treating the beginning of early voting in most states like the beginning of a series of Election Days in order to avoid a “disaster” on November 3.

The conundrum Democrats face in ensuring their voters are comfortable voting in-person mirrors the problem facing Republicans: GOP leaders are concerned that Trump’s constant attacks on vote-by-mail could dissuade their voters from using absentee ballots and depress Republican turnout.

Some Democrats have long expressed concerns that some of their own constituents could be most hurt by rejected ballots or other problems like late-arriving ballots that are more likely to occur during mail-in voting.

Recent primary elections have highlighted that a relatively small percentage of rejected ballots could still mean that tens of thousands of votes do not count. Studies have also found that the ballots of younger voters and voters of color are disproportionately rejected, as these are the types of voters that typically have the least experience with the complex vote-by-mail process.

A shift in message and strategy

Democratic operatives in Senate campaigns in battleground states across the country say the messaging around voting has become more nuanced; they’re avoiding the implication that in-person voting is not safe.

“The last thing we want to suggest to our voters is voting in person is necessarily a trade off with your health,” said one senior Democrat on a Senate campaign. “The overarching message is however you want to vote, it is safe and secure.”

One Democratic operative in Pennsylvania told CNN that there is a large party effort in the state to educate voters on what their options are outside of mail-in voting, as well as to bolster in-person voting capabilities should people decide to do that instead of mail in their ballots.

“(President Trump) has succeeded in making people scared and distrustful of the post office,” that operative told CNN. “There were large swaths of voters who already weren’t sure about the post office, so people need to understand they have other options.”

Recently, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, who served as an adviser in the Obama administration, analyzed the relative risk of contracting coronavirus while voting and came to a simple conclusion.

“There’s a lot of conversation about voting, but we looked at the data. It seems most like shopping at the grocery store. And that has some risk but it’s pretty low risk,” Emanuel said in an interview.

Emanuel said that conclusion is based on a better understanding of how the virus spreads, the widespread availability and use of facemasks and other precautions, as well as evidence suggesting that voting, like grocery shopping, has not led to any widespread outbreaks since the beginning of the pandemic.

“There are ways and reasons to vote in person,” Emanuel said. “People should not fear for their lives by going out and voting. It’s a hell of a lot safer than going to a restaurant.”

In April and May, as the pandemic ravaged parts of the Midwest, the East and the West Coasts, Democrats had a clear message: Americans should not be forced to risk their lives to cast their ballots.

One by one, states postponed their presidential primaries and other elections scheduled for early summer, concerned that indoor polling places, sometimes located in poorly ventilated school gymnasiums, would be hotbeds for viral spread.

But as the November election approaches, states have shifted their strategies, opting for larger “voting centers” like sports arenas that allow for better air flow and require fewer poll workers. Some states have also expanded early voting in addition to expanded absentee voting.

That effort is being boosted by a multi-million dollar effort led by athletes, including basketball star LeBron James, to recruit poll workers for in-person voting sites in Black districts ahead of the November election.

The National Basketball Association and the NBA Players Association agreed to offer up arenas to serve as large polling locations that can more safely accommodate in-person voters.

All of this has led some public health experts like Emanuel to say that the risk inherent in in-person voting is not as significant as other activities.

“If the consequence of us not talking about it is that turnout is low, that’s a bad thing,” Emanuel said.

A partisan divide

A recent CNN poll found that 49% of Biden voters said they planned to vote by mail, compared to 10% of Trump voters. A Washington Post/University of Maryland poll conducted by Ipsos found a similar result: a strong partisan tilt in how voters planned to cast their ballots.

Much of the resistance to voting by mail is due to Trump’s repeated, false attacks on the practice. He has deemed it the “ballot hoax” and accused states that have moved to mostly mail-in voting of rigging the election.

Trump and White House aides have suggested that the results of the election must be known on election night, and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany left open the possibility that Trump’s acceptance of the election results would depend on the results.

“The President has always said he’ll see what happens and make a determination in the aftermath,” McEnany said in a press briefing when asked about Trump’s claim that the only way he would lose the election is if there were massive fraud.

That partisan divide has fueled new worries that the in-person vote on Election Day could differ dramatically from the mail-in vote.

“(Trump’s comments) politicized the issue dramatically and you began to see this much starker divide between Republicans and Democrats and how they planned to vote,” said New York University constitutional law professor and CNN contributor Richard Pildes. “That made even more dramatic the possibility of how lots of late counted ballots could play into a dangerous situation with outcomes switching in key states after election night.”

Early in the pandemic, Pildes was among the experts pushing for expanded vote-by-mail options. He acknowledged that making the pivot to emphasizing in-person voting might be a challenge for Democrats now.

“I don’t think it was wrong to want to open up options for people to vote by mail,” Pildes said. “But I think it makes it difficult to pivot now and get the message out that while you should use that option if you feel like you are at particularly significant risk health-wise, it would actually be better for the election overall if more people voted in person.”

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