Does All Mail Voting Increase Turnout?

In the long run, apparently Not or Not Much.

Article from the Washington Post, from researcher Elizabeth Bergman: Voting only by mail can decrease turnout. Or increase it. Wait, what? <read>

Note that we here are talking about all mail elections, not no-excuse absentee voting, which tends also to decrease turnout.

Supporters hope that voting by mail means more citizens will vote. Is it so?

Generally, the answer is both “no” and “yes,” but with important qualifications…

Some early research in Oregon claimed that voting by mail increased turnout by 10 percentage points. However, since then, scholars have been unable to reproduce those results. Apparently that boost to Oregon’s turnout grew from a “novelty effect” and recurred only in special elections.

In Washington, researchers found that switching to all-mail elections increased overall participation by about three percentage points in presidential and midterm elections. In the California pilot, after the Nov. 3 elections, the San Mateo County elections office received 105,325 ballots out of the approximately 353,000 that were mailed. That’s 29.5 percent voter turnout, or 4.1 percent more than a similar off-year polling place election in 2013, when 25.4 percent of registered voters cast their ballots…

The media was quick to attribute the “eye-popping” increase in voter turnout to simply switching to vote-by-mail. But it’s not that simple.

Mail-only balloting actually decreases voting

My research found that when you can only vote by mail, voter turnout actually drops by about 13 percent. I examined what happens to turnout if voting by mail is compulsory. I studied more than 90,000 voters who could vote only by mail across four elections from 2006 through 2008 in five of the most populous urban counties in California. (In that state, if a precinct has fewer than 250 voters, elections officials are allowed to forego a polling place and accept ballots only by mail.)

That decline may seem counterintuitive. Presumably voting by mail is easier and more convenient than going to the polls. So why doesn’t turnout go up?

According to a 50-state study that examined elections over a 30-year period, voter turnout is less about convenience than academics once thought. Most voting reforms, like all-mail balloting, do not attract new voters.

What’s more, alternative voting methods are most likely to be launched in states that already have high voter turnout.

Why does voting by mail decrease turnout? Because mail voters have a longer voting “window,” they receive less stimulus to vote. Scholars have found that reductions in stimulation to vote are greater than the modest positive benefits of additional convenience from mail voting…

But reminders make a difference

Reminders are critical. My research found that when the elections office communicates more often with voters, more of them vote. In particular, four official communications can wipe out the 13 percent decrease in turnout that I found. ‘‘Official communications’’ include such documents as a Sample Ballot, a Voter Guide, letters on county letterhead and postcards from the Registrar of Voters. Each additional communication improved the odds of voting by 4 percent. And a voter who received five communications was 4 percent more likely to vote than a voter who received no mailings.

That leaves us with another question.  What effect would those same reminders have on election day voting?  Could we wipe out the 13% deficit by avoiding all mail voting, and add those same five reminders to increase turnout altogether, say by 10% or so?


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