Their votes are key to the 2024 election. They’re feeling both confident and worried.

When Carolyn, a Black woman from LaCrosse County, Wisconsin, casts a ballot this year, she intends to do so early, before Election Day — away from any crowds or lines that could expose her to violence.

It’s not a thought that would have crossed her mind a decade ago, noted Carolyn, who identifies as an independent. But increasing political polarization has her reconsidering risks to her safety.

“I’m not going to be standing in a line somewhere, a voting line — that’s just not gonna happen. … I don’t necessarily feel that there’s going to be some type of gun violenceor something like that immediate,” she added. “But I also don’t want to put myself in that place, just because of the shift. There’s been a definite shift.”

Roughly six months before the presidential election, a group of 15 women from diverse backgrounds, in key battleground districts — Kent County, Michigan; Bucks County, Pennsylvania; and LaCrosse County, Wisconsin — gathered as part of a focus group to discuss their views on the state of democracy in 2024.

The 90-minute session on May 7 presented a snapshot of the complex highs and lows of civic engagement in this moment: a general appreciation for the importance of voting — but also a disillusionment that it may not make a difference on the federal level, in part because of extreme political polarization. There was a confidence in the people who run the nation’s elections — but also suspicion and weariness about dynamics like who has access to the ballot, the threat of election misinformation and the scope of political violence.

The focus group was organized by Keep Our Republic, a nonpartisan organization that works to strengthen trust in the electoral system through community outreach programming. Kasi Meyer, a Michigan representative for the group who lives in Kent County, said the focus group shows that “people are hungry for information” and are wading through “a lot of garbage and a lot of disinformation and misinformation out there.”

“What I’m seeing out of the focus group really is just a general undercurrent of, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know how we got here. I don’t know how we ended up with these candidates again … and I don’t know what’s going to happen come immediately after the election in November.’ And when people feel, ‘I don’t know,’ that’s when the fear happens. That’s when just the uncertainty happens. Some people will check out because of that, and then completely tune out.”

The sentiments of the focus group come as trust in democracy is at an all-time low. A Gallup poll conducted in December showed 28 percent of U.S. adults say they’re satisfied with the way democracy is working — a drop from 60 percent in 1991.

Voters like Carolyn highlighted the tension that some voters feel about the upcoming election, including how news consumption is impacting voter attitudes and how everyday responsibilities can create barriers to being politically engaged. The 19th was able to observe the virtual focus group under an agreement that participants would be identified by only their first name and some general details about their demographics.

Celine, a Black woman from Kent County, said she is worried that logistical barriers to voting, like not living close enough to a polling location, compounded by feelings that their vote won’t make a difference in the outcome, could keep many voters home. All the participants of the focus group indicated that they plan to vote in the upcoming election.

Maggie, a White Republican woman from LaCrosse County, said she moved just days before Wisconsin’s primaries in April and struggled to figure out whether and how to vote.

“If I hadn’t had access to find that out, or if I had gone to the polling place and then they had turned me away, how committed would I really be to jump through the necessary hoops to be able to vote if I had more wheels spinning in my life or more adverse factors?” she said.

Patty, a Republican woman from La Crosse County who identifies as Hispanic, described how some rural elderly voters might miss out on voting in the upcoming elections. While helping her husband with his campaign for a local county board earlier this year, she said, she encountered many older voters who simply refused to vote early or cast absentee ballots, saying it was their right to go on Election Day. Republican leaders, including Donald Trump, for years discouraged voters from casting early ballots or voting absentee by questioning their legitimacy and security, linking them to widespread election fraud without any evidence.

When Election Day came, Patty said, “We had a huge storm — wet snow, very slippery,” keeping many rural elderly voters from voting.

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Some in the focus group worried about how inaccurate information will be shared ahead of the election. Misinformation — when someone unknowingly shares information that is inaccurate — and disinformation — when someone shares it intentionally — are among the top concerns for election experts this cycle.

“There’s been a trend in the last handful of years to just, like, confuse people or doubt the validity of the process,” said Jes, a White woman and Democrat from Kent County. “And I think that has residual effects. I think people worrying that the election results four years ago weren’t legitimate are going to have residual effects, and people are just struggling to trust to know what’s real, because they’re hearing a lot of contradictory narratives.”

Martha, a Black Democratic woman from Bucks County, added: “Misleading information can actually lead all of us into voting the wrong candidate into power, without really knowing that we voted them into that position.”

But others, like Patty, said it was an issue of individual responsibility.

“I believe that if you think you’re worthy of deciding the future of this country, or this county or the school board, it is your duty to educate yourself, OK?” she said. “Don’t expect the community to educate you, or the news to educate you. I think it should be up to you.”

Christopher Borick, the focus group moderator and a professor at Muhlenberg College, said the exchange between participants shows how people are still learning about misinformation and disinformation — both the scope and intent.

“The idea that ‘Well, that’s ‘buyer-beware’ versus institutionally (and) structurally, how do we address the presence of this in a free society? As I heard that back and forth … it struck me that that was kind of capturing that dynamic,” he said.

The three counties where the focus group participants reside are considered among the most competitive in the nation. Borick said capturing a snapshot of how women in these communities are feeling could help them figure out what kinds of information they need to feel confident in the elections process.

“It’s a coveted vote, it’s a key vote,” he said. “And given the whole array of policy issues … it seems like a perfect time to bring that cohort together.”

While none of the participants spoke about the presidential candidates by name, several said they were concerned about potential disruptions following the election results. Trump in early May cast doubts on whether he would accept the results of the November election, saying that if the process is not “honest,” he and others would have to “fight for the right of the country.” Biden has framed his reelection bid as a way to preserve democracy.

Jayee, a Black woman from Bucks County who identifies as an independent, said she is concerned about violence following the election results, “if it doesn’t go the way of a certain political party. So that’s just my fear.”

Martha said she is hoping for security measures to stem violence during the election and immediately after.

“It would actually be nice if certain security measures have been put in place so that at the end of the day, if the results for this election have been announced, that security personnel are ready to be able to put a stop to anybody that’s willing to come out with any form of violence during that period,” she said.

Ari Mittleman, Keep Our Republic’s executive director, struck a hopeful tone in describing some of the focus group’s overall questions and curiosity about the electoral process.

“Even with those questions, they still care deeply about the democratic experiment,” Mittleman said. “… I didn’t really hear any pessimism. Or anyone saying, ‘Well, it’s all rigged. I’m not going to vote or my vote doesn’t matter.’”

Keep Our Republic staff are traveling through Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in the weeks ahead for programming that connects residents to local officials who can answer questions about the elections process. The group does not advocate for any candidates or ballot measures.

“They’re education-focused,” said Meyer of the public events. “It’s an opportunity for people to come together and hear what really happens during elections, and also ask questions and maybe get them answered right there.”

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