Absentee Ballots and Early Voting
Will Vote-by-Mail Elections Increase Turnout
Advocates of mail ballot elections predict that voting by mail will produce higher turnout and allow voters to become more informed. Our study tests these predictions by taking advantage of a “natural experiment” in which many California voters are assigned to vote by mail because they live in less populous precincts. By matching these mail ballot precincts with traditional polling place precincts that contain voters with similar demographic characteristics, we are able to observe the effects of voting by mail on comparable groups of voters taking part in the same elections. We find that:
Voting by mail does not increase turnout in presidential and gubernatorial general elections. In fact, turnout was 2.6 to 2.9 percentage points lower in mail ballot precincts, according to our analysis of two general elections held in representative samples of 18 and 9 counties.
Voters who cast their ballots by mail in general elections are more likely to skip downballot races, another finding that runs counter to the expectations of vote-by-mail advocates.
However, voting by mail appeared to bring an average 7.6 percentage point turnout increase in local special elections, which have much lower participation rates overall. This finding is based on recent elections held in three counties.
Running elections by mail offers other potential costs and benefits apart from its effects on political participation, according to our interviews with California registrars and review of vote-by-mail elections across the country. These other impacts include potential cost savings, opportunities and barriers to fraud, and access for disabled voters.
We would like to thank the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation for supporting this project and the many county election officials who offered their observations and data. We are grateful to the Statewide Database’s Karin MacDonald for bringing mail ballot precincts to our attention and Anup Pradhan for fulfilling our data requests. Sam Deddeh, Mike Binder, Krishan Banwait, and Thurman Wise provided valuable research assistance, and Yphtach Lelkes and Josh Weikert made thoughtful comments that helped improve the report.
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.