CA120: Conspiracy theories may backfire — on both parties

A photo illustration of whisper campaigns and conspiracies. (Image: Valery Sidelnykov, via Shutterstock)

In our culture, conspiracy theories are running rampant, and elections seem to be particularly prone to the craziest among them.

Republicans, led by the president, have claimed that vote-by-mail is unsafe, and that non-citizens are registered to vote and are casting ballots. Ballot “harvesting” is causing rampant voter fraud, President Trump says, and the system is being rigged against him.  Even Attorney General William Barr claimed, incorrectly, that vote-by-mail eliminates the secret nature of voting in the US.

Recent Capitol Weekly polling can quantify this distrust, and how it breaks down on partisan lines.

More than three-quarters of voters who say they regularly support Republican candidates also say they don’t have confidence in California’s election system.  This is in strong contrast to Democratic supporters with a 95% confidence in voting in California.

Do you generally have confidence in the voting process in California, who is allowed to vote, and that all votes are counted properly?
Always Support Democratic Candidates Always Support Republican Candidates Total
Yes 95% 23% 76%
No 5% 77% 24%

The change to a broad vote-by-mail system for this coming election is strongly opposed by these Republican voters, with 85% against the change and an identical proportion believing that the change will help Democrats more than Republicans.

Importantly, these voters — many of whom have voted by mail in the past — have concerns that their own ballots won’t be counted.  A striking 40% of Republicans are not confident their ballot will be counted if they mail it in, with 44% fearing that someone could take and change their ballot, while 42% fear it could be lost or destroyed.

If we look at the Republicans who received a ballot in the mail and voted in 2018, 93% returned it through the postal system, with only 7% switching to an in-person ballot.

It’s a classic case of friendly fire, where those who seek to sew distrust in our election system are actually causing significant harm to their own electoral chances.

Yet, when asked, only 30% of these voters say they will return their ballot in the mail this year, with 51% saying they would prefer to bring it to a polling location and 19% saying they will use a drop box.

This new distrust of the vote-by-mail system – one in which Republicans traditionally dominate Democrats – is going to have consequences, but not likely the ones Republican lawmakers who are promoting these fears would have wanted.

The voters most prone to these conspiracies are their own, and it is they who will respond, ironically, by not using the simplest and safest way of voting.This is extremely likely to reduce their final turnout.

It’s a classic case of friendly fire, where those who seek to sew distrust in our election system are actually causing significant harm to their own electoral chances.

But before Democrats get too excited, they also are prone to conspiracy theories.

Progressive activists and Democratic elected officials have been creating their own doubts among their supporters that elections are secure and fair.  And that could reduce turnout among their most faithful voters.

These conspiracies range from a general distrust of elections outside of California, to fears that the U.S Postal Service is being dismantled in order to steal the election.

Democrats overwhelmingly support the vote-by-mail system, and they say that they are going to vote early. About 70% say they will return the ballot as soon as they receive it, and only 4% say they will wait until Election Day.  However, when asked what is their greatest concern about by-mail-voting, over 65% say “postal service delays.”

This could mean that California’s Republican voters won’t accept the results in their own state, and Democratic voters won’t accept the results in the rest of the country…

This has real impacts as we have seen this week in Virginia, where Democratic voters have been causing huge lines at in-person voting locations, often citing a lack of confidence in the postal system. Democrats may be encouraged to see this outpouring of support, but there is no way that shifting their voters from vote-by-mail to a system in which they stand in long lines for hours is going to ultimately increase their turnout.

Another concern is how Democrats will take the results of the presidential election across the country – 95% of Democratic voters have confidence in California’s election system, but only 63% have confidence regarding elections being held in other states.

This could mean that California’s Republican voters won’t accept the results in their own state, and Democratic voters won’t accept the results in the rest of the country – hardly a good look for our democratic institutions as a whole.

In our polarized political culture, each side believes the other is peddling conspiracies, while they are spreading the facts.  And that’s how this works.  Each of these conspiracies has a nugget of truth upon which it is built, but from there it expands to levels of ludicrousness that makes it a full-blown conspiracy.

For Republicans, they can point to a 2018 illegal ballot delivery (“harvesting”) case in North Carolina in which canvassers were taking ballots and either throwing them away or re-marking them for their candidate.  Or they might point to a non-citizen who was registered to vote in California or a felon who was prosecuted for illegally casting a ballot in Texas. These are extremely isolated incidents, but they have happened, and they can be perpetuated by both Democrats and Republicans.

Democrats can point to the fact that postboxes have been removed in some Democratic cities, or to the increased delays in mail, or even to  the truly confoundingly dumb mailer that the U.S. Post Office sent to voters across the country with misleading information. But, at least in California, these are not the kind of issues that are going to derail by-mail ballots.

After the election there will be real policy conversations about our voting systems in the United States.  We will likely have a deeper conversation about the role of vote-by-mail in our elections nationally…

Rather than peddling these conspiracies, Democrats and Republicans should be encouraging the full use of by-mail voting, not just because it is the right thing, but because it is what is going to get more of their voters to participate. And our research shows there are several messages that can be impactful in helping voters gain more confidence in the system.

In our polling, we asked voters if the following arguments made them more or less confident in the vote by mail system.  In here we find ways to combat voter disinformation and distrust in our election systems that can be helpful to partisans on both sides of the aisle.

California has implemented changes to vote by mail in order to help voters feel more confident in the voting system.  Do the following make you feel more or less confident that the election will be secure?

Total More Confident Dem More Confident Rep more confident NPP More Confident
California voters can sign up online to receive an email or text message when their ballot has been received and counted. 92% 97% 78% 94%
Ballots are First Class, Postage Paid, not needing any additional postage. 87% 95% 67% 91%
Only registered voters are mailed a ballot. 84% 91% 67% 87%
Ballots in California match signatures against the voter registration card and/or DMV license signature. 83% 89% 70% 84%
In California, most voters already vote by mail and the system has been safe and secure. 80% 93% 45% 84%
Ballots that are not received by Election Day can still be counted if they are postmarked by Election Day. 79% 89% 52% 82%
Ballots that are missing a signature or don’t have a signature match can be fixed after Election Day by having the voter submit a new signature. 62% 75% 28% 65%

The big winner here is the state’s “Where’s my Ballot” tracking system, with 78% of Republicans, 94% of Independents and 97% of Democrats saying that the ability to signup for notification when your ballot is received would give them more confidence.

Majorities of Republicans who are consistently the most concerned about these changes can be given confidence by three additional messages – how ballot signatures are verified against existing state documents, that ballots don’t need postage and that only registered voters are receiving them in the first place.

Even when we narrow it down to the most skeptical voters – Republicans who say they don’t have confidence in the California election system — about 70% of Republicans say they are more confident when hearing their ballot can be tracked with them receiving a text message or email when it is received or counted.

So, as we see news reports in these last several weeks in the election, partisans from both sides, and activists, elected officials and consultants who are reading this should think very seriously: Is what I’m hearing a conspiracy theory (whether I’m prone to believing it or not), and will promoting this information or allegation actually help or hurt my interests in this election cycle?

If it sounds at all like a conspiracy theory, the answer to the second question is likely “no.” I have yet to hear an election conspiracy theory that will actually help turnout, build confidence, or promote our democratic institutions.

After the election there will be real policy conversations about our voting systems in the United States.  We will likely have a deeper conversation about the role of vote-by-mail in our elections nationally, potentially seeing moves to enact more standardization in our election systems from state-to-state, and seeing a strong push to replace sections of the Voting Rights Act that have been neutered in the past several years.  These will be important debates to have.

However, between now and Election Day, the focus should be on one simple thing: doing everything we can to get people from all partisan stripes and all corners of our country out to vote.

Editor’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator of the CA120 column, vice president of Political Data, Inc., and owner of Redistricting Partners, a redistricting consulting firm. 


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