Weeks before the first votes of the 2020 presidential election, Americans report a high level of concern about how secure that election will be and worry about the perils of disinformation, according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll.
Forty-one percent of those surveyed said they believed the U.S. is not very prepared or not prepared at all to keep November’s election safe and secure.
Reflecting the polarization of the Trump era, two-thirds of Democrats think the country isn’t prepared, while 85% of Republicans said they think it is.
“Like so many issues, Americans view election security from opposite poles of the partisan divide,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll.
President Trump, who has often disputed the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election, gets low marks from many voters on his handling of election security.
Driven by Democrats and independents, 56% of those surveyed think Trump has not done very much or has done nothing at all to make sure there will be no future election interference — although 75% of Republicans think he has done enough.
“I can trust [Trump’s] word to know that he is going to try as best as he can … in order to stop influence from foreign countries in our elections,” said first-time voter Joel Martin, a Republican from California.
Martin and other respondents were contacted by NPR for follow-up interviews after they had given their initial responses to questions from Marist pollsters.
Trump faces an impeachment trial this month tied directly to his efforts to get Ukraine to launch an investigation into one of his potential 2020 rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden.
And despite the scrutiny and criticism of his actions with respect to Ukraine, Trump also said in October that China should “start an investigation into the Bidens.”
Remarks like those may have been on the mind of the 51% of the Americans surveyed who said Trump had encouraged election interference. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats and 51% of independents backed that assertion.
“I considered the attack on our electoral system to be the single biggest assault on United States sovereignty since Pearl Harbor,” said poll participant Dimitri Laddis, an independent voter from New York.
“The fact that the commander in chief has done nothing to reassure us that we are safe from such an attack — and the fact that he seems to be keenly aware that he benefits from outside forces having influence over our elections — is very disheartening,” Laddis said.
Although there is no evidence that any votes were changed by a foreign power in 2016 or 2018, almost 4 in 10 Americans surveyed said they believe it is likely another country will tamper with the votes cast in 2020 in order to change the result.
The poll’s results also paint a picture of a polarized electorate wary about what it reads and not fully convinced that elections are fair.
In a reflection of how divided the country is, only 62% of Americans said U.S. elections are fair.
Barely half of Democrats agree with that sentiment, perhaps a reflection of lingering unhappiness that Donald Trump won the 2016 election by capturing the Electoral College while losing the popular vote.
And even as Trump has continued to claim without evidence that millions of votes were cast illegally in 2016, 80% of Republicans surveyed reported that they believe elections are fair.
“Many Americans think election cycles are no longer on the up and up,” said Miringoff, the Marist director. “These opinions are a troublesome sign about this keystone of our democracy.”
Intelligence and elections officials work hard to reassure voters about the integrity of the system, but there is concern about the effect of disinformation in the political discourse. False, misleading and agitating material were a big part of Russia’s active measures in 2016.
Americans retain concerns about this today; 59% of those surveyed reported that it is hard to tell the difference between what is factual and what is misleading information.
Despite nearly four years’ worth of attention to disinformation, 55% of Americans say it will be harder to identify deceptive information than it was in 2016.
Eighty-two percent of those surveyed said they believe they will read misleading information on social media and a similar proportion believe foreign countries will spread false information about candidates this year.
The public does not trust big social network and tech companies to prevent their platforms from being misused to present election interference, the poll revealed.
Seventy-five percent of those surveyed are not confident about the tech companies, a 9-point increase from a similar 2018 NPR/Marist poll.
Despite casting blame on tech companies for spreading disinformation, there was little consensus on who should be most responsible for reducing its flow: 39% pointed to the media, 18% to tech companies, 15% to the government and 12% to the public itself.
Not surprisingly given Trump’s oft-repeated claim that the media peddles in “fake news,” 54% of Republicans say it’s the media’s responsibility to stop the spread of disinformation.
Voting rights and election administration
Americans who responded to the poll were divided about what they considered the biggest threat to the election — 35% said disinformation is the biggest threat; 24% blamed voter fraud; 16% said voter suppression; 15% blamed foreign interference.
In yet another sign that voters live in very different media bubbles, voter suppression was cited as the greatest threat for Democrats. Voter fraud topped the list for Republicans. Independents were most concerned with misleading information.
By an overwhelming margin, Americans said they found voting to be easy, and most have not encountered problems with confusing ballots, problems with their voter ID or registration or broken voting machines.
But more than a third of younger and nonwhite voters say they have experienced long lines.
Moreover, women and nonwhite respondents are considerably more likely than men and white voters to say that their own vote won’t be counted. And half of women and slightly more than half of nonwhite respondents said many votes will not be counted, in contrast to men and white Americans, who are more confident that all ballots will be tallied.
“People are trying to redline the country to stop different ethnic groups from voting,” said Larry Swoffard, an African American poll respondent from California.
Local election officials get relatively high marks from voters, with 68% expressing confidence that officials will run a fair election in 2020. Nearly 6 in 10 respondents say they plan to vote in person on Election Day. Twenty-three percent say they will vote by mail or absentee ballot. Another 18% said they would cast their ballot at an early voting site.
NPR’s Domenico Montanaro and Lexie Schapitl contributed reporting to this story.
The phone survey of 1,259 adults was conducted by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion between Jan. 7 and Jan. 12. It has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points when adults are referenced and 3.8 percentage points when registered voters are referenced.