Attitudes Toward Democracy are Underwater in Texas: Some Takeaways from Results on Voting and Expectations for the 2020 Election

Even in Texas, where no one can be too surprised anymore by the politicization of the rules governing voting and elections, the road to the commencement of early voting for the 2020 general election in Texas has been a particularly rocky one. 

The COVID-19 pandemic led to local elections and run-offs some local officials postponing elections in the spring and early summer. By emergency proclamation, Governor Greg Abbott expanded the period of early voting and loosened some of the rules regulating the in-person submission of mail-in ballots, even as he and the attorney general waged political and legal counter-offensives against efforts by local officials, voting rights groups, and Democrats in various configurations to ease access to the ballot box during the pandemic. As part of this political zig-zagging, the governor, in a subsequent proclamation, limited the number of in-person, mail-in ballot drop-off locations to one per county.  Despite Abbott’s refusal to expand voting by mail, as many advocated during the height of the pandemic, the new Chairman of the state Republican Party, Allen West, joined efforts by Republicans to sue the governor over his expansion of the early voting period. Both parties also maneuvered to get their third party rivals removed from the ballot. This list isn’t even comprehensive, nor have we made mention of the widely chronicled and vehement aspersions Donald Trump continues to cast on the integrity of the election process as his national and state poll numbers erode.

With all of this as context (and great interest and high expectations that the results would be interesting), we designed a battery of questions for the October 2020 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll probing Texans’ attitudes about the conduct of the elections in Texas and their expectations of the process in 2020. The results don’t disappoint in terms of their interest, but it’s appropriate that we greet them with Halloween on the horizon. They are grim and even scary. 

Fighting over the rules and conduct of elections is an inherent part of politics, especially in the decentralized federal system in the United States. But the results from this latest poll portray the continuing attitudinal fallout of two decades of ever-escalating partisan conflict over voting and election regulation. Democrats and Republicans view the system through two entirely different sets of lenses, and, it is unavoidable to note, with vastly different levels of fact-based foundation —  given the extreme paucity of evidence supporting Republican claims of widespread and consequential voter fraud. As these views of the election system have hardened along partisan lines, the lack of commensurability between these two competing views and the relentless willingness of incumbents fighting to protect their hold on power to emphasize flaws in the system, imagined as well as real, have corroded faith in the process. 

Ross Ramsey wrote a long and thorough account of the poll results in his rollout story in The Texas Tribune. Below, we decompose some of the major findings in the poll to underline just how far this corrosion has spread in Texas. We’ll return to the big picture in another post before Election Day.

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Misinformation spread on social media62%
Votes being counted inaccurately43%
People voting who are not eligible40%
Eligible voters prevented from voting40%
Foreign governments election interference39%
People voting multiple times38%
An increase in people voting by mail33%
People not voting due to COVID32%

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Misinformation spread on social media65%51%61%
Votes being counted inaccurately30%43%53%
People voting who are not eligible17%36%60%
Eligible voters prevented from voting56%45%25%
Foreign governments election interference57%34%25%
People voting multiple times18%34%55%
An increase in people voting by mail13%31%49%
People not voting due to COVID48%32%18%

1. Despite the absence of evidence to support such concerns, there is a widespread expectation among some groups of Texans that that fraud will be a serious problem in the upcoming election. The expectations are much more prevalent among Republicans than among Democrats, with independents in the middle but in most cases closer to the views of Democratic voters. We registered some of these beliefs during the run up up to the 2016 election in the October UT/Texas Tribune Poll, as Donald Trump was repeatedly raising the specter of a “rigged election” whose results he would not commit to accepting (an encore performance in 2020 is still underway). Even in victory, he continued to claim without evidence that the process by which he lost the popular vote had been tainted by ineligible voters. However, Texas attitudes have been conditioned by more than the president’s heated fantasies. Years of Texas’s own elected officials and partisan “thought leaders” making dubious or hyperbolic claims about the prevalence of voter fraud have informed partisans’ opinions amidst the complexities – and for that matter, the simpler truths – of the voting process and the political and legal maneuverings that have maintained Texas’ restrictive, often arcane voting system for the last generation. 

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Extremely serious17%36%60%
Somewhat serious13%16%21%
Not too serious19%15%9%
Not at all serious47%19%6%
Don't know4%14%3%

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Extremely serious15%58%70%
Somewhat serious8%11%19%
Not too serious20%16%4%
Not serious at all55%14%5%
Don't know2%1%2%

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Extremely serious18%34%55%
Somewhat serious14%14%25%
Not too serious15%16%11%
Not at all serious49%21%6%
Don't know3%15%3%

2. A long series of measures to maintain or increase the requirements for registering to vote, for maintaining eligibility, and for being allowed to actually cast a ballot have likely contributed to the widespread suspicions among Democrats that eligible voters are being prevented from voting by government authorities. In Texas, the state government has been given almost free reign to implement new constraints on voting and election practices since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated key federal oversight mechanisms in the Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013. After years of litigating the state’s voter identification law, during which time the legislature attempted and often succeeded in passing laws in the name of election integrity over the loud but largely ineffectual efforts of the Democratic minority, Democratic voters now consistently express suspicions about the barriers built into the voting process, particularly the equal treatment of voters of color within it. When we asked Texans to rate how serious a problem eligible voters being prevented from voting would be in February 2019  – as the legislature set about considering new restrictions – and again in October 2020, Democrats rated the problem far more serious and more frequent than did Republicans. 

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Extremely serious56%45%25%
Somewhat serious27%18%18%
Not too serious9%13%21%
Not at all serious4%11%31%
Don't know4%14%6%

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Don't know/No opinion9%20%8%

3. One notable point of agreement among partisans who otherwise hold vastly different perceptions about threats to election integrity was the negative impact of misinformation spread on social media. Large, nearly identical majorities of both Republicans and Democrats classified misinformation on social media as a serious problem in the 2020 election. This may be the only thing about the 2020 election that garners such agreement. #SAD

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Extremely serious62%
Somewhat serious20%
Not too serious9%
Not at all serious4%
Don't know5%

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Extremely serious65%51%61%
Somewhat serious22%18%18%
Not too serious6%11%11%
Not at all serious3%6%5%
Don't know4%15%4%

4. The political disputes over voting by mail may have discouraged some Texans, especially Democrats, from voting by mail, though comparing June and October results requires some caution due to a slight variation in question wording due to different contexts shaping the discussion in June and October. But claims by voting-by-mail alarmists starting with President Trump and trickling down to Texas elected officials including the Governor and many of his legislative allies have likely triggered alarms among their followers: Republicans as a group disapprove of expanding voting by mail in Texas by a large margin. Considering the patterns in partisan attitudes on both sides, Republican skepticism likely stems from suspicions that increased voting by mail will trigger widespread fraud and cheating, while Democrats anticipate mail-in ballots being disqualified and otherwise not counted – which taps into a larger Democratic concern about ballots not being counted correctly. The prevalence of this concern, of course, doesn’t prevent GOP suspicions of election-rigging — stoked regularly by prominent Republicans and their fellow travellers — to be more apparent among Republicans than among Democrats.

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Extremely serious13%31%49%
Somewhat serious18%11%30%
Not too serious22%16%11%
Not at all serious43%23%6%
Don't know3%20%4%

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Extremely serious30%43%53%
Somewhat serious27%19%28%
Not too serious23%15%12%
Not at all serious17%9%3%
Don't know3%13%3%

5. Allowing voters to register online remains broadly popular, though much more popular with Democrats and independents than among Republicans. Voter attitudes among the latter are not as lopsided as one might anticipate given attitudes in other areas, with Republicans evenly split (41% to 41%) in our most recent poll. 

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Don't know/No opinion6%18%18%


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Don't know/No opinion15%33%22%

6. Overall, these attitudes dangerously manifest in the most current election through widespread skepticism and even outright distrust in advance of the election results. Only 16% of Texans were “very confident” that Americans would accept the result of the presidential election; a quarter were either not all confident or didn’t know. Democrats were only slightly more confident than were Republicans. And when it came to a more personal, subjective judgment, the results are even more disquieting. Less than half of Texans say that regardless of who wins, they will trust the result of the presidential election; the largest share – 46% – said that they don’t know if they will. Add the unsure group to the 14% who said that they won’t trust the result, and you have 60% unable or unwilling to commit to accepting the outcome of the American presidential election — in the oldest continually operating democracy in the world. Yet half of Texans expect they will know who won the election either on Election Night (28%) or within 1-2 days (23%). Republicans as a group have higher expectations on this front than Democrats, though not by a lot. Ultimately, these results don’t portend a cooling off period for the electorate after November 3.

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Don't know/Unsure46%

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Don't know/Unsure44%52%46%


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