Washington – Speakers at the Democratic National Convention this week had to walk a careful line between warning Joe Biden’s supporters of obstacles to voting and being so negative that they discourage participation.
Over four days, everyone from senators to celebrities urged voters to request and return mail-in their ballots early, head to early voting centers or, if necessary, be ready to wait in long lines on Election Day.
“We have got to grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown-bag dinner, and maybe breakfast too, because we’ve got to be willing to stand in line all night if we have to,” former first lady Michelle Obama said Monday.
This year’s election between may be one of the most confusing in American history, due to the coronavirus pandemic and President Donald Trump’s response to it. But there is a risk to highlighting the challenges. Studies have shown that even talking about obstacles such as new voter ID requirements can dampen turnout, as voters get confused about the rules.
More than 200 lawsuits have been filed in 43 states over election rules. The Trump campaign itself has filed lawsuits seeking to restrict voting options in Pennsylvania, Nevada and Iowa and this week threatened New Jersey with another lawsuit.
Trump, meantime, has crusaded against mail-in voting, making baseless claims of widespread fraud while seeking to encourage his own supporters to vote absentee, as he will. That’s left state Republican parties with messaging problems of their own as they launch their early get-out-the-vote efforts.
Kathleen Unger, president of VoteRiders, a nonpartisan group that helps people meet voter ID requirements, said she’s concerned that all of the back-and-forth over voting is going to leave Americans uncertain about how they can cast a ballot. In her work, she said she’s often seen potential voters simply give up in light of new ID requirements, even when they already have the paperwork they would need.
She fears a similar effect will dampen turnout among both Democrats and Republicans this fall.
“Whether that’s anybody’s intention or not, that is absolutely an unequivocal result,” she said.
Research backs up that argument. A 2019 study of a voter ID law in North Carolina found that it decreased turnout by about 1 percent — even in an election held after the law was suspended — because voters weren’t aware it was no longer in effect, “creating confusion that deters turnout,” the authors wrote.
During their convention, Democrats sought to pin voting problems this fall entirely on Trump. Speakers argued that the president’s false claims about vote-by-mail, campaign lawsuits and changes at the U.S. Postal Service were an attempt to undermine voting rights because he is losing. The RealClearPolitics average of national polls shows Democratic nominee Joe Biden ahead by 7.6 percentage points.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Trump might try to “sneak or steal his way to victory” if the election is close. Michelle Obama said “folks who know they cannot win fair and square at the ballot box are doing everything they can to stop us from voting.” And in unusually stark language, former President Barack Obama said the Trump administration “has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes for them to win.”
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump ally, sought to assure lawmakers that the concerns about service changes were overblown at a Senate hearing Friday.
“The American people can feel comfortable that the Postal Service will deliver on this election,” DeJoy said.
The nominees themselves hedged their remarks more carefully, with vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris warning of “obstacles and misinformation” and “folks making it harder” to vote, while Biden made only a vague allusion to Russian interference in the 2016 election in his acceptance speech.
But speakers spent most of their time urging supporters to come up with a plan to overcome any obstacles, asking them to text a campaign-run phone number that will explain how best to vote in their state and provide them with reminders about upcoming deadlines.
At several points, speakers sought to frame the arguments over voting during the pandemic as part of a broader historical fight, referencing the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote and civil rights protesters like the late Representative John Lewis, while pledging to restore the Voting Rights Act.
“Do not let them take away your democracy. Make a plan right now for how you are going to get involved and vote,” Barack Obama said in his speech Wednesday from a Revolutionary War museum in Philadelphia. “Do what Americans have done for over two centuries when faced with even tougher times than this.”