Session 9: Pandemic Elections

Friday, July 29      10:25 AM-11:45 AM 

Chair: Charles Stewart III, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Paper #1: The Impact of the Pandemic, Election Policies, and Partisanship on Voting Participation in the 2020 Election


The COVID-19 pandemic inspired fear among voters, further divided a polarized nation, and encouraged policymakers in many states to alter voting policies. Did the pandemic, health concerns, voting policies (including those newly initiated), and partisanship influence whether or how citizens voted? Did these factors result in voter participation in 2020 diverging from previous presidential elections? This study addresses these questions using state-level data recording voting policies, political competition, and demographic information with individual-level data from the Cooperative Election Study (CES). First, we discuss the pandemic’s impact on the political agenda, the campaigns, and the policies the states implemented to promote voter and election worker safety. Second, we provide an overview of the relationships between the threat posed by the virus, changes in election policies, and partisanship on voter turnout and the methods citizens used to cast a ballot.  Third, we model the effects COVID-19, voting policies, and partisanship on the likelihood an individual voted and the voting method they selected, while controlling for voter characteristics and the electoral competition. Fourth, we analyze changes in voting behavior by comparing voter participation in the 2020 and 2016 presidential elections. The results demonstrate that some but not all of the changes the states implemented had their anticipated effect, and the relationships between election procedures, partisanship, and turnout are complex, especially during a crisis.

  • Paul Herrnson, University of Connecticut

  • Charles Stewart III, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Paper #2: Voting During COVID: Canadians' perceptions of electoral management

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada in early 2020, the country had just come off the heels of a federal election the previous October. But with a newly elected minority government, election talk, including the threat of another election, never quite faded. During the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, five provinces held elections, along with a federal election in the Fall of 2021. How did the public respond to the pandemic conditions, and how did this affect their confidence in election management and the voting process? This paper presents the conditions under which provincial and federal electoral management bodies held elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. It employs both provincial and federal survey data of Canadians, collected by the Consortium for Electoral Democracy (C-Dem), gathered in the periods leading up to and following the elections. These data allow us to present public attitudes and behaviours about holding an election during a pandemic, choices about how to vote, and comfort and safety at the polls across six provincial and federal elections in Canada. It furthermore considers how different population groups, based on socio-demographic and attitudinal variables, perceived the safety of casting a ballot and willingness to go to the polls. The paper concludes with lessons learned from holding elections during a pandemic in the Canadian context.

  • Holly Ann Garnett, Royal Military College of Canada

  • Jean-Nicolas Bordeleau, Universite de Montreal

  • Allison Harrel, Université du Québec à Montréal

  • Laura Stephenson, University of Western Ontario


Paper #3: What Drove the Increase in Mail Voting in the 2020 General Election?

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed how individual voters participated in the 2020 general election. Multiple data sources report that between 43% and 48% of the population cast their ballots by mail in that election, nearly doubling the rates of mail voting over the 2016 and 2018 general elections.

This paper will explore the factors that drove mail voting in the 2020 general election. We will use both aggregate and individual data sources—including the 2020 Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE), the 2020 Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS), and the 2020 Policy Survey—to model individual decisions to vote by mail, state-level mail voting rates, and changes in mail voting rates between 2018 and 2020. We will explore the impact of individual-level factors like demographics and attitudes on the COVID-19 pandemic and state-level factors like mail voting policy and changes in policy since the 2018 general election. Preliminary analysis shows signs that attitudes towards COVID positively increased mail voting rates at the individual and state levels.

Our findings will help election administrators understand whether personal attitudes about COVID-19 played a larger role than election policies did in driving the shift towards mail voting and will assist administrators in understanding how mail voting trends may shift in future elections.

  • Lindsay Nielson, Fors Marsh Group

  • David Varas Alonso, Fors Marsh Group


Paper #4: Perceptions of Election Fraud Across Voting Methods


The hallmark of the 2020 election was the heightened anxiety over voter fraud as a result of a dramatic increase in vote-by-mail. Despite scant evidence of actual voter fraud, state legislatures have responded to these suspicions by enacting new laws which target access to and ease of voting-by-mail. This study assesses the public’s perceptions of the prevalence of fraudulent election activity across voting methods as well as the durability of those attitudes over time. Public opinion data used for this analysis were collected from nationally representative samples (n=1,000) in November of 2020 and 2021 (University of Texas at Austin Cooperative Election Study Team Content). With a focus on identifying differences across voting methods, respondents in both survey years were given parallel survey items utilizing four-point scales of the prevalence of fraudulent election activities when voting-by-mail and in-person. Specifically, this study explores differences in perceptions of the frequency of the following scenarios: voting more than once, stealing or tampering with ballots, pretending to be someone else when going to vote, non-citizen voting, and officials changing the reported vote count.


Preliminary results suggest that anxiety over election fraud has persisted well into 2021. On average, respondents were more likely to perceive higher levels of fraudulent election activity in 2021 relative to 2020 in all scenarios. This pattern was stable across voting methods (e.g. voting-by-mail and in-person voting) and across years. In general, respondents were more likely to perceive higher levels of fraud when votes are cast by mail relative to in-person voting.

  • Nadine Gibson, University of North Carolina at Wilmington