The Debate Over Mail-In Voting Continues

(image by Robert Couse-Baker

As of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, three states—Oregon, Washington, and Colorado—had adopted statewide vote-by-mail policies. In this system, the state or jurisdiction mails ballots and informational pamphlets to voters weeks before the election, voters mark their ballots at their leisure, and then return them either through the postal service or else in ballot boxes scattered around the state. This all-mail system of voting is not entirely new to states. Indeed, 22 states have policies in place allowing for certain elections, such a municipal and special elections, to be conducted entirely by mail.[2] What is relatively newer, however, is the use of a 100% vote-by-mail process for Presidential, midterm, and primary elections.[3] By implementing legislation increasing the number of elections that are conducted entirely by mail, states like Oregon, Washington, and Colorado slowly transitioned towards all of their elections being conducted as through vote-by-mail.[4]

As touted by Phil Keisling, former Secretary of State for Oregon and pioneer of the vote-by-mail program there, “no other solution holds anywhere near the potential to boost actual voter turnout.”[5] He even claims that adopting a Universal Vote By Mail system could increase voter turnout in midterm elections by 10 to 15 percent.  Such high percentage increases in voter turnout have been reported by other researchers, like Alan Gerber and Priscilla Southwell.

Indeed, the Evergreen Political Science Association report from Alan Gerber, Gregory Huber, and Seth Hill regarding elections in Washington suggested that, “the reform increased aggregate participation by two to four percentage points;” likewise, according to Priscilla Southwell and Justin Burchett in “The Effect of All-Mail Elections on Voter Turnout”, switching to a vote-by-mail system could increase voter turnout by nearly ten points.[6] However, these results have proven inconsistent. When trying to replicate the results of Southwell and Burchett’s study, Paul Gronke and Peter Miller found that the ten-point increase was due to the novelty effect of the policy and could not be upheld. Indeed, in “Changing Election7  Methods: How Does Mandated Vote-By-Mail Affect Individual Registrants?,” Elizabeth Bergman and Phillip Yates found that the implementation of a mandatory all-mail voting system actually reduced the probability of an individual voting by 13.2% by lowering voluntary voting incentives.[8]

In “Election Laws, Mobilization, and Turnout: The Unanticipated Consequences of Election Reform,” Barry Burden and his associates pinpoint the reasons for a decline in voter turnout with the use of a vote-by-mail system. In particular, they note how a longer voting window of time decreases the stimulus to vote, and that “reductions in stimulation to vote are greater than the modest positive benefits of additional convenience from mail voting.”[9] Moreover, extending the window of time the voter has to return the ballot decreases incentives for the “get out the vote” program, reducing the level of communication between parties, election officials, and voters.[10]

Thad Kousser and Megan Mullin’s 2007 study on the impact of mail-in voting on voter participation discovered that while voting by mail generally decreases voter turnout rates in general Presidential elections, there has been significant success “that voting by mail can increase turnout in these otherwise low-participation contests,” such as municipal and special elections.[11]

While literature analyzing the efficacy of vote-by-mail systems has strongly called into question the premise that voting by mail will increase voter turnout, the literature fails to mention a pivotal benefit to having a ballot mailed to the citizens for every election. In her Huffington Post opinion piece, Washington resident Maris Ehsan states plainly that, “the beauty of receiving your ballot in the mail is that you’ll never miss participating in an election.”[12] Mailing ballots to voters increases awareness of upcoming elections that normally only the most politically-engaged constituents would participate in. It is for this reason that a mail-in voting system would arguably result in higher voter turnout in normally low-turnout contests, thus increasing the volume of the democratic voice in such elections.

However, the exact impact of mail-in voting on voter turnout, even in primary and midterm elections, is debatable due to the evident trend that states with already higher voter turnout are more likely to adopt a vote-by-mail system.[13] Washington, Oregon, and Colorado have had historically higher civic engagement, so separating the effect of mail-in voting from naturally higher voter turnout remains difficult. Indeed, even before adopting vote-by-mail systems, Oregon averaged 55.9% voter turnout in midterm elections, Washington averaged 42.4% voter turnout, and Colorado averaged 49.4% voter turnout, compared with the national average of 40% voter turnout in midterm elections.[14] On the other hand, there does appear to evidence of increases in midterm voter turnout, as seen when comparing Oregon’s 53.4%, Washington’s 43.1%, and Colorado’s 54.7% voter turnout in the 2014 midterm election with the 36.7% U.S. voter turnout in the 2014 midterm election.[15]

However, as Keisling discussed in his defense of vote-by-mail policies, many politicians—including Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders—are more interested in making it easier for unregistered, but eligible, voters to vote than they are in increasing the voter turnout of already registered voters; as many of the unregistered voters would be younger or minority citizens, Keisling argues that Democratic legislators are more enthusiastic about reaching potentially Democratic voters rather than easing the process of voting for those already registered.[16] As such, initiatives like vote-by-mail, which are designed to increase the voter turnout of registered voters or else to ease the constraints of voting on Election Day, are currently not a priority for many states. While states remain more concerned with increasing voter registration rather than increasing voter turnout, the prevalence of mail-in voting may remain limited across states lines. However, as more research is done regarding the increase of voter turnout in the midterm and primary elections that mail-in-voting could impact, the nation may see more vote-by-mail incentives emerging for these elections in the future.

Logan Crawford is a 1st year MPP Student at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.

[1] Elizabeth Bergman, “Voting only by mail can decrease turnout. Or increase it. Wait, what?” Washington Post, December 21, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/12/21/voting-only-by-mail-can-decrease-or-increase-turnout-wait-what/?utm_term=.34addd68a546

[2] National Conference of State Legislatures. “All-Mail Elections (AKA Vote-By-Mail).” http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/all-mail-elections.aspx

[3] “Voting by Mail.” The New York Times, n.d. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/10/07/us/voting-by-mail.html?_r=0.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Phil Keisling, “Vote from Home, Save Your Country,” Washington Monthly (January 2016). http://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/janfeb-2016/vote-from-home-save-your-country/

[6] Alan S. Gerber, Gregory A. Huber, and Seth J. Hill, “Identifying the Effect of All-Mail Elections on Turnout: Staggered Reform in the Evergreen State,” Political Science Research and Methods 1, no. 1 (June 2013): 91-116; Elizabeth Bergman, “Voting only by mail can decrease turnout. Or increase it. Wait, what?” Washington Post, December 21, 2015; Priscilla L. Southwell and Justin I. Burchett, “The Effect of All-mail Elections on Voter Turnout,” Sage Journals (January 2000).

[7] Paul Gronke and Peter Miller, “Voting by Mail and Turnout in Oregon: Revisiting Southwell and Burchett,” Sage Journals (October 2012).

[8] Elizabeth Bergman and Phillip A. Yates, “Changing Election Methods: How Does Mandated Vote-By-Mail Affect Individual Registrants?” Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy 10, no. 2 (June 17, 2011): 115-27.

[9] Elizabeth Bergman, “Voting only by mail can decrease turnout. Or increase it. Wait, what?” Washington Post, December 21, 2015, citing Barry C. Burden, David T. Canon, Kenneth R. Mayer, and Donald P. Moynihan, “Election Laws, Mobilization, and Turnout: The Unanticipated Consequences of Election Reform,” American Journal of Political Science 28, no. 1 (January 2014): 95-109.

[10] Government Accountability Office. “Issues Related to Registering Voters and Administering Elections,” (June 2016).

[11] Thad Kousser and Megan Mullin, “Does Voting by Mail Increase Participation? Using Matching to Analyze a Natural Experiment,” Political Analysis, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Autumn 2007), pp. 428.

[12] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maria-ehsan/what-voting-in-the-future_b_2074954.html

[13] Elizabeth Bergman, “Voting only by mail can decrease turnout. Or increase it. Wait, what?” Washington Post, December 21, 2015.

[14] Author’s calculations based off of the five Presidential and midterm elections prior to the year each state adopted vote-by mail. Data received from United States Elections Project, “Voter Turnout: National Turnout Rates, 1787-2012.” http://www.electproject.org/home/voter-turnout/voter-turnout-data.

[15] http://www.electproject.org/2014g

[16] Phil Keisling, “Vote from Home, Save Your Country,” Washington Monthly (January 2016).

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