Week of 1/10/22: Voting Rights

Josh Berezin, Lead Strategist

Summary: A message based in the values of Merit and Patriotism increased support for the Freedom to Vote Act among Republicans and white people.

This research was conducted in partnership with Strategic Victory Fund.

Background

When we decided to tackle voting rights messaging this week, we didn’t know it would be a week quite so full of news. But we took the opportunity to incorporate current research and Biden’s own speech into our investigation.

Various public polls show high support for individual voting rights provisions, as well as voting rights bills introduced by Democrats, so we worked to understand objections of people who opposed these bills, and to craft messages that might earn their support.

Top Findings

While no message moved overall support for the Freedom to Vote Act by a statistically significant margin, “Merit”—a message that emphasizes patriotism and hard work—increased support among white people by 15 points, while also increasing support among Republicans and people who lean conservative, though it didn’t work with people of color and might have caused backlash. While we didn’t see movement among Democrats overall, baseline support for the bill is very high among this group already, and there may be little room to grow support. 

Audience Understanding Survey

We launched an Audience Understanding Survey on January 9th, asking 784 people the following question:

Congress is considering a bill known as the Freedom to Vote Act, which would establish a number of new rules around voting and elections. Among other things, it would:

  • Increase the penalties for tampering with voting records
  • Restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens
  • Expand the availability of voting by mail and early voting
  • Require all states to conduct a post-election audit of their state’s election

Do you support or oppose the Freedom to Vote Act?

Support was overwhelming, with 69% in support and just 11% opposed. 

While we knew from others’ research that provisions in the Freedom to Vote Act were generally popular, we had guessed that our question wording might drive down support somewhat, especially among more conservative voters who oppose vote by mail and voting rights restoration. But that’s not really what we found.

Though many Republicans supported the bill, opponents were nearly exclusively Republican.

Compared to respondents overall, opponents were likelier to be white, 55+, rural or suburban, middle income, and Protestant. They were likelier to value Merit and Patriotism highly. They tended to watch Fox News and trust police and churches.

We used this Audience Understanding Survey both to understand the roots of people’s opposition to the Freedom to Vote Act, but also to understand more conservative voters’ support for the bill, since there seemed to be little room to grow support among liberal voters or Democrats.

In our open-ended questions, many supporters of the bill called out restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated people as a reason they approved of it. But there were also people in every category, from strongly support to strongly oppose, who mentioned their opposition to rights restoration. While Freedom to Vote Act opponents were not subtle in this position generally (“Felons lost rights to vote” is an example), some supporters of the bill expressed milder reservations to restoring voting rights, or felt that there should be exceptions for people who committed “heinous” crimes. 

Opponents also tended to mention fraud and the need for voter ID requirements.

Rapid Message Test

For our Rapid Message Test, we wrote two messages based on observations from our Audience Understanding Survey, one based on language adapted from Biden’s speech in Georgia, and also tested a Freedom to Vote Act message that a coalition of researchers and advocates had crafted.

We changed the question wording slightly to reflect the overall media and information environment about voting rights legislation. We presented the proposal, accurately, as coming from Democrats, and continued to include a list of policies from the bill that we thought would appeal to or fail to appeal to different segments of the population.

Democrats in Congress have proposed a bill known as the Freedom to Vote Act, which would establish a number of new rules around voting and elections. Among other things, it would:

  • Increase the penalties for tampering with voting records
  • Restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens
  • Expand the availability of voting by mail and early voting
  • Require all states to conduct a post-election audit of their state’s election

Do you support or oppose The Freedom to Vote Act?

We recruited 986 respondents and randomly assigned each to view one of our four messages, or a placebo, after which they were asked the outcome question.

Results

Though our estimates of Freedom to Vote Act support are higher for every group of respondents who saw one of the messages, no message increased support across the board by a statistically significant margin. The messages also may have decreased opposition, but those effects were also not statistically significant.

Overall:

The fact that the effects were not statistically significant doesn’t necessarily mean they were small — increasing support by 5 to 7 percentage points while reducing opposition by 2 to 5 percentage points is meaningful, but we would likely need to repeat the experiment with a larger sample to increase our confidence in these effects.

The message with the largest estimated effect overall, “Merit,” was written in response to observations from our Audience Understanding Survey, and appealed to the values of patriotism and hard work. This message was clearly the most effective among white respondents, but likely the least effective among people of color.

White respondents:

“Merit” increased support among white respondents by 14 percentage points

People of color:

“Merit” was estimated to decrease support among people of color by 5 percentage points

“Merit” was also the most effective message among the audiences it was designed for — Republicans, people who voted for Trump, and people who identify as conservative. 

None of the messages had any effect on Biden voters, though baseline support among that population was at 89%, so it’s hard to increase much from there. 

Biden voters:

Biden voters were not responsive to any message we tested

Appendix

Messages

Biden

President Biden:

This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy.

The Freedom to Vote Act would prevent voter suppression so there’s full access to voting by mail, there are enough drop boxes during enough hours so that you can bring food and water as well to people waiting in line.

The Freedom to Vote Act takes on election subversion to protect nonpartisan election officials, who are doing their job, from intimidation and interference.

It would get dark money out of politics, create fairer district maps and end partisan gerrymandering.

Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadows, justice over injustice?

I know where I stand. I will not yield.

Freedom

Whatever our color, background or zip code, in America we value our freedom. The freedom to have a say in decisions that impact our lives, like making health care affordable or creating jobs.

But now, the same faction who have endangered our lives with lies about COVID and our election, passed anti-voter bills in states, and tried to block an investigation into the attack on our Capitol are refusing to pass laws the majority of Americans favor.

This is a turning point for our nation.

Our Senate leaders must exercise their majority, eliminate the filibuster, and pass the Freedom to Vote Act to create national standards to ensure that we can safely and freely cast our ballots, ensure that trusted local election officials count every vote, and prevent partisan politicians from sabotaging the results of our elections.

Rhetorical

What makes someone a good voter? Maybe it’s their commitment to home and country, or their belief in the power of democracy. Maybe it’s their hard work, dedication, and the lengths they go to support their family. Maybe it’s their enthusiasm or their resilience or their service. No matter what makes a voter, if we believe in freedom, then we must fight for the freedom to vote. The fight begins with the Freedom to Vote Act.

Merit

The greatness of America is built by the efforts of hard-working people. Yet, the hardest workers today often cannot exercise their fundamental right to vote, simply because they don’t have the time to jump through the bureaucratic hoops involved. It’s time for an upgrade that both makes it easier for working people to choose who represents them, while also ensuring that nobody can cheat and erase the will of the people altogether. That’s what the Freedom to Vote Act is all about.

Key Experiment Details
  • Audience: All adults, balanced on age, race, and gender
  • Geography: the United States
  • Sample size (raw / weighted): 265 / 233 (after applying your filters)
  • Dates in field: Wednesday, January 12, 2022 to Thursday, January 13, 2022
  • Weighting factors: age, race, gender, education, and party