Can holding mail ballot elections – which feature no polling places and ask everyone to vote by mail over a specified period – increase voter participation? Electoral reform advocates claim that it can (Bradbury 2005; Rosenfield 1995; Davis 2005). Residents of Oregon have voted by mail since 1995, and policymakers at all levels of government are considering proposals to introduce this fundamental shift in the way that elections are conducted. Legislation to allow vote-by-mail elections has been introduced in Congress (HR 1835) and in California (AB 867 and AB 1309), and voters in Arizona recently rejected a ballot proposition that would have instituted voting by mail.
Proposals for local implementation have appeared before the governing bodies of San Diego, California (Elections Task Force 2006) and King County, Washington (Roberts 2006). A key rationale behind these policy efforts is the conventional wisdom that vote-by-mail elections will significantly boost turnout.1 This conventional wisdom draws from political science research on absentee voters and the experiences of Oregon, yet there are important reasons to doubt whether findings from this research will extend to more general applications of voting by mail.