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Expert: Pandemic-induced early, mail-in voting means we should be 'fairly skeptical' of exit polls

Posted at 2:15 PM, Nov 03, 2020

A typical component of Election Day news coverage for decades has been the exit poll, but this year's elections will be anything but typical.

Voters might encounter exit pollsters on their way out of their voting station, or they might get a phone call later at their home, with a simple question: "Will you tell us who got your vote for (insert elected office or ballot measure here)?"

Exit polling is meant to provide a preview of what official election results -- often not available until hours or sometimes days later -- will eventually show. But in a year with record-setting levels of early and mail-in voting, due to the coronavirus pandemic, one local expert says exit polls should be taken with even more salt than they normally deserve.

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"Exit polls are done in a very rigorous way: that is, a way that is done to get as close to the actual results as possible," said Dr. Ryan Salzman, associate professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University. "But you have to opt in."

Adding to exit polls' limitations this year, though, is the partisan line along which voters tend to decide whether to vote early or vote on Election Day.

"We've seen the self-reported rates of early and mail-in voting is much higher among Democrats than with Republicans, and so, if we turn that on its head, day-of voting is going to be much higher with Republicans than with Democrats," Salzman said.

It's typically the other way around, Salzman said. Historically, in states that have allowed early voting, conservative voters -- usually fitting into an older age demographic -- are more likely to take advantage of the early voting option. Differing responses to COVID-19 between liberals and conservatives have flipped that trend on its head this year.

"Democrats tend to be a little more risk-averse when it comes to COVID, or a lot more risk-averse when it comes to COVID, so when it comes to seeking alternatives that are safer -- which mail-in voting is one -- that may shift," Salzman said.

This means anyone paying attention to the exit polls on election night should be ready for some to show Republican candidates winning, Salzman said, but those predictions might skew as early and mail-in votes are counted.

Ultimately, Salzman recommends patience.

"It may take a day or two or three before we get the official results, and that's what we're looking for, not projections, the official results," he said.