“How We Voted in 2020: A look at the Survey of the Performance of American Elections”


The MIT Election Lab team has been hard at work at a number of data puzzle pieces since the 2020 election — our ongoing precinct data project, for example. The piece we launched this week, though, is something we’ve been particularly excited about: the latest iteration of the Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE).

The SPAE provides information about how Americans experience voting during a federal election. It is the only national survey of election administration that focuses on the process of voting, and provides insights into election performance in the individual states. It’s been conducted in every presidential election since 2008, giving us over a decade of data to draw from.

In 2020, 18,200 registered voters responded to the survey. Two hundred respondents each were interviewed in 40 states plus the District of Columbia, and 1000 interviews were conducted in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. We’re grateful to many folks for making this year’s survey possible, including the Democracy Fund, which supported the 2020 SPAE in part.

On Monday, March 29th, we released a report summarizing our findings from the survey, as well as the SPAE questionnaire and data. We encourage you to read the report and examine the data yourself, if you’re so inclined! You can find everything linked through this portal page on our website (which also links back to previous years’ data and findings).

To start you off – or for those of you who we know are pressed for time – we’ve summarized some of the top findings from our report below.

Voting by mail vs. in person:

  • The percentage of voters casting ballots by mail grew to 46 percent, more than doubling the fraction from 2016. On the other hand, the share of voters casting ballots on Election Day fell to 28 percent, from 60 percent in 2016. Sixty percent of Democrats, compared to 32 percent of Republicans, reported voting by mail.
  • Voters who cast ballots in person and by mail continued to express high levels of satisfaction with the process, as in past years. Average wait times to vote increased for all modes of in-person voting, and in most states.
  • Only about half of the ballots that were mailed to voters were returned by mail. Twenty-two percent of mail ballots were returned to drop boxes. In the long-standing vote-by-mail states of Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, 60 percent were returned to drop boxes.

Voting in a pandemic:

  • Worry about COVID was the top reason cited for voting by mail. But 59 percent of in-person voters were “very confident” that the public health measures in their polling place would protect against catching COVID.
  • Eighty-seven percent of in-person voters report seeing poll workers wearing masks.

Voter confidence and perceptions of fraud:

  • Measured across all voters, confidence that votes were counted as intended remained similar to past years. However, significant partisan gaps opened up.
  • Among Republicans, lack of confidence in whether votes were counted as intended at the state level was strongly correlated with whether Donald Trump won the respondent’s state and with the fraction of votes cast by mail in the state.
  • Partisan attitudes about the prevalence of several types of vote fraud became more polarized in 2020, particularly attitudes about absentee ballot fraud.

Attitudes toward election reform:

  • Voters’ attitudes around reform — both overall support and partisan divisions — remained similar to past years. However, partisan divisions opened up further for voting by mail.
  • Requiring electronic voting machines to have paper backups, automatically changing registrations when voters move, requiring election officials to be nonpartisan, declaring Election Day a holiday, and requiring voters to show a photo ID to vote were supported by majorities of both Democrats and Republicans.
  • Adopting automatic voter registration, election-day registration, and moving elections to weekends are supported by a majority of voters, but not by a majority of Republicans.

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