States, parties, and candidates need to reassure the public “in as many ways that they can” about the relative safety of in-person voting, Gardner told me. Her group is considering sending a mailing to tens of millions of people with a message like “Wash your hands, wear a mask, and vote.” But the effort is not as simple as it sounds. “Groups are leaning into it but they want to lean into it in a way—and this is an important dynamic—that’s not depressing, that’s not simultaneously making people nervous about voting,” Gardner said. “So understanding that balance is very, very important.”
Democrats are struggling to find that balance as well. Rather than assert directly that in-person voting is safe for most Americans, Democrats have generally focused on informing voters of their options for casting a ballot and urging them to “make a plan” to vote—a refrain repeated by many speakers during the Democratic National Convention. The language is rooted in research showing that “when people plan things out in advance, they’re much more likely to follow through,” Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who has run Democratic-campaign committees in both the House and Senate, told me.
For the next few weeks, at least, Democrats say their message around voting is simple: Request absentee ballots and send them back immediately. “The real motivation is to try to get as many people as possible to vote early because of COVID,” former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a onetime Democratic Party chairman, told me. He estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the vote could be cast by mail. “We don’t prefer you standing in line.”
The Biden campaign says it plans to spend part of its $280 million fall budget on an “unprecedented” voter-education campaign to inform people in key states how they can cast their ballot safely and securely. It also plans on tracking voters who request absentee ballots so it can remind them to send them back or inform them about early in-person voting options. But as November approaches, and concerns about Postal Service delays potentially mount, the messaging may have to shift toward in-person voting.
Both Emanuel—whose brother, Rahm, knows a thing or two about political messaging—and the Biden campaign have converged on the grocery store as a point of comparison, albeit in slightly different ways. Molly Ritner, the Biden campaign’s deputy states director, noted that during the pandemic, some people have continued to shop in person for their food, some have opted for curbside pickup, and others have groceries delivered to their door. “In a lot of ways, voting allows the same options depending on people’s comfort level and their personal situations,” she told me. “People have figured out what their comfort zone is.”
For now at least, the campaign seems to be holding back, uncomfortable with making an assurance about the safety of a fundamental act of citizenship that it cannot quite guarantee. So it’s leaving both the question, and the burden of answering it, on the voters themselves. "We are giving people options of how to vote,” Ritner told me, “and then letting them make the decision of what they think is safe.”