You wouldn’t need to scroll far on your favorite social media platform to find an article or comment about mail-in voting. The topic has become a central battleground in the presidential election. Many on the Right believe mail-in voting is rife with fraud borne by Democrats, while those on the Left believe it is being wrongly disparaged to suppress voting or to delegitimize the election outcome, should President Trump lose. 

A recent CivicScience survey of 2,968 expected U.S. voters found people starkly divided on their preferred means of voting this November. Fifty-two percent of respondents say they would prefer to vote by mail in the coming election. Forty-eight percent say they would prefer a physical polling station.

The Safety Factor

It’s important to note that mail-in voting wouldn’t even be grabbing headlines today were it not for the COVID crisis. The presumption is that many voters – particularly those who are older and at-risk – feel unsafe voting at crowded polling places. Mail-in or absentee ballots represent a socially-distant alternative. And indeed, the CivicScience data prove this out. 

Among respondents who are “very concerned” about being in public spaces during the pandemic, preferences for mail-in voting leap to 70%. Among those who are unconcerned, it drops to just 12%.

Party Matters

As expected, the results break heavily along partisan lines. Two-thirds of Democrats prefer mail-in voting, compared to just 25% of Republicans. Independents skew in the direction of mail-in voting by a 59% to 41% margin. Helping to explain these numbers, people in urban areas with larger Democratic voter blocks and higher rates of COVID cases prefer mail-in voting significantly more than do Republican-heavy rural areas, where the pandemic has been less severe.

Trust is Key

Driving the partisan divide on preferred voting methods is trust. CivicScience also asked expected U.S. voters which means of voting they trusted most, finding that 35% of respondents chose paper ballots by mail, 35% chose paper ballots at a polling station, and 30% chose electronic ballots at a polling station. In other words, a greater number of  Americans consider electronic polling booths – not mail-in voting – to be more unreliable than other means. 

Again, the party breakdown of these numbers is telling. Fifty percent of Democrats consider mail-in voting to be most trustworthy. Only 15% of Republicans say the same.

An Age-Old Question

Returning to the question about preferred voting method, the numbers vary widely by age group. Preferences for mail-in voting peak among older voters, which makes sense considering they are at the highest risk for COVID and generally less mobile. Sixty-five percent of respondents age 65+ and 55% of respondents aged 55-64 prefer mail-in voting. Among 30-44-year-olds, 55% are most likely to prefer in-person voting.

According to the Pew Research Center, 56% of the electorate in 2016 was over the age of 50 and 27% was over the age of 64. Voter turnout among that group will be crucial in determining the outcome of the election. 

Also, according to Pew, President Trump won in 2016 among voters aged 65+ by over 9 points and among those aged 50-64 by over 7 points. Based on those numbers, you’d think President Trump and the Republican apparatus would be doing anything they can to encourage older Americans to vote, by any means they prefer.   

But, when we look at age and political party together, a more nuanced picture emerges. Seventy-four percent of Democrats over the age of 64 and 73% of Independents in the same age range prefer mail-in voting. Even among Republican voters in the age group, preferences for mail-in voting climb to 44%, nearly double the rate among Republicans on average.

It’s likely that both candidates and both party organizations already know all of this – or at least assume it to be true. The Trump camp knows that, even if turnout among more cautious older voters is low, the ramifications would be worse for Democrats. The Biden camp knows that too, which is why promoting and defending mail-in voting is so vital to their strategy.

Expect this battle to wage on until Election Day – and maybe even beyond.