MAY 2020 | AROUND THE ABA

Law Day survey: Americans like online voting, early voting, and the ERA

As the prospect of in-person voting during a pandemic grows real for many Americans, most U.S. adults in a new American Bar Association survey say they favor online voting — but only after initially saying they opposed it in a previous survey one month earlier, before the COVID-19 pandemic became a national emergency.

Both surveys are included in the annual ABA 2020 Survey of Civic Literacy.

The first survey was conducted March 9-13. President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on the afternoon of March 13, the last day of the survey. In that poll, 63% of respondents said they opposed Americans having the ability to vote online rather than going to a polling booth.

Then came stay-at-home orders and scenes of Wisconsin voters in protective masks standing in long lines to vote on April 7. The second survey began that day and continued to April 11. In that survey, a majority (55%) said they now support the ability to vote online rather than in person at a polling booth.

Both surveys were conducted by telephone by DAPA Research on behalf of the ABA and included a nationally representative sample of the American public. For the March survey, 1,000 adults were interviewed, and the margin of error was 3 percentage points. For the April survey, 800 adults were interviewed, and the margin of error was 3.5 percentage points.

Both polls showed overwhelming support for allowing early voting before Election Day. In March, support was 78%; in April, it was 72%.

The March survey also showed strong support (72%) for restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their prison sentences. But the same survey also showed a bare majority (52%) agreed that voter fraud is a major problem in the U.S. electoral system, and a large majority (82%) supported requiring voters to present an ID to prove their identity before voting.

The survey also revealed a large gap in how well Americans understand the presidential election system. Fewer than half of respondents (46%) knew that votes in the Electoral College are allocated to states based on the number of senators and representatives they have in Congress. One out of 3 people surveyed (33%) thought electoral votes are based on the number of registered voters in each state.

This is the second annual Law Day Survey of Civic Literacy sponsored by the ABA. This year, in recognition of the 100th anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, the survey asked several voting-related questions.

One focused specifically on women’s rights. It showed strong support (83%) for the Equal Rights Amendment, which was first proposed in 1923. Congress approved the amendment in 1971 and 1972, but the amendment fell short of the 38 state ratifications needed by the deadline to become part of the Constitution.

Several questions in the April survey focused on the COVID-19 pandemic.

One asked whether the government should be able to suspend certain First Amendment rights during a serious national emergency, such as a public health pandemic. Those surveyed overwhelmingly rejected suspending the First Amendment freedom of speech (92%) or freedom of the press (87%). Eleven percent said it would be OK to suspend freedom of the press during an emergency, and 7% said it would be OK to suspend freedom of speech.

A majority (54%) said they supported suspending the constitutionally guaranteed right of assembly during a national emergency.

When asked who has the legal authority to issue statewide quarantines or stay-at-home orders in the United States, most people (71%) correctly identified the state governors, but 18% inaccurately thought it is the president’s power.

The survey also assessed how well most adults understand the basics of American democracy. The results were mixed.

The vast majority of those surveyed knew:

  • The first three words of the U.S. Constitution (89%)
  • Who is the commander in chief (85%)
  • What the first 10 amendments of the Constitution are called (84%)
  • What the Declaration of Independence did (83%)
  • What the Emancipation Proclamation did (78%)

But many respondents did not understand the rights and responsibilities of non-citizens. For example:

  • 22% thought non-citizens do not have free speech rights.
  • 12% thought non-citizens do not have due process rights.
  • 18% thought non-citizens do not have to pay federal income taxes.
  • 16% thought non-citizens do not have to obey the law.

And while most (78%) knew that the U.S. Supreme Court is the ultimate authority in interpreting the Constitution, more than 1 in 3 (39%) did not know that John Roberts is chief justice of the United States. One in 9 (11%) thought it was Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Finally, the survey revealed that many Americans do not understand the term “separation of powers.” While 61% knew it means that each of the three branches of government can check the powers of the other two, 15% thought the president is superior to the other two branches, and 12% thought the courts are superior.

To read the full survey, visit ambar.org/CivicSurvey