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With the COVID-19 pandemic threatening elections across the United States and the rest of the world, it’s been more important than ever to be able to vote at home and not risk being exposed.
One way to do this is through widespread adoption of voting by mail. In most systems like this (adopted years ago in Oregon and Washington), every registered voter receives a ballot in the mail. They can mail their ballot back, or drop it off at a special ballot box.
I volunteer as a Research Analyst for Business for America, a nonprofit that helps businesses implement programs to improve their employees’ civic participation. Below is some of the research I’ve reviewed in the work I’m doing.
Advantages of Vote By Mail
Vote By Mail is cheaper than holding regular elections. For example, the Pew Charitable Trusts look at Vote by Mail in Colorado and found the election cost per voter went from $15.96 down to $9.56 after. (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2016)
Eberhard (2020) also found that states that use vote by mail spend $2-10 per voter, compared to $10-16 for elections conducted primarily through in-person elections.
Vote By Mail also improves the “down ballot” performance of voters, ensuring they complete more of the ballot (voting for County Auditor, Judges, School Board, etc.) perhaps because they have more time to research the candidates. (Showalter, 2018; Szewczyk, 2018)
Finally, a majority of Americans already support Vote By Mail (Sanders, 2020) and over 25% of ballots are already submitted by mail. (Stewart, 2017)
Vote By Mail and Party Affiliation
Some people say that Vote By Mail improves participation among Democrats or Leftists, meaning that widespread adoption of vote by mail would unfairly advantage this side of the political spectrum. Luckily, we know that’s not true.
Numerous studies have found that while VBM improves turnout, it doesn’t do so among Democratic or Leftist voters. (Berinsky, Burns, & Traugott, 2001; Hanmer & Traugott, 2004; Southwell & Burchett, 2000; Thompson, Yoder, Wu, & Hall, 2020)
In fact, some studies found that VBM could increase turnout among Republicans, who tend to have a higher socioeconomic status and are more likely to vote anyway. (Karp, & Banducci, 2001; Monroe, & Sylvester, 2011)
There is a large body of research behind the effectiveness of Vote By Mail, and the advantages far outweigh any potential disadvantages (such as voters completing their ballots incorrectly or ballots not being counted in time.)
Berinsky, A.J., Burns, N. & Traugott, M.W. (2001). Who Votes by Mail? A Dynamic Model of the Individual-Level Consequences of Voting-by-MailSystems. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 65(2), 178.
Eberhard, K. (2020) “FAQ: Pandemic-Proof Elections with Vote By Mail”. Sightline. Retrieved on April 2, 2020 from https://www.sightline.org/2020/04/01/faq-pandemic-proof-elections-with-vote-by-mail/)
Hanmer, M. J., & Traugott, M. W. (2004). The Impact of Voting by Mail on Voter Behavior. American Politics Research, 32(4), 375–405. https://doi.org/10.1177/1532673X04263412
Karp, J. A., & Banducci, S. A. (2001). Absentee Voting, Mobilization, and Participation. American Politics Research, 29(2), 183.
Monroe, N.W., Sylvester, D.E. (2011) Who converts to vote-by-mail? Evidence from a field experiment. Election Law Journal 10(1): 15–35.
Pew Charitable Trusts. (2016) Colorado Voting Reforms: Early Results. (2016). Retrieved on April 2, 2020 from https://www.pewtrusts.org/-/media/assets/2016/03/coloradovotingreformsearlyresults.pdf
Sanders, L. (2020) Americans support voting by mail—and so do the states. YouGov. Retrieved from https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2020/04/07/vote-by-mail-poll
Showalter, A. (2018) Vote At Home: The Turnout Effects of All-Mail Election Systems in Upballot and Downballot Races in Utah 2016. Pantheon Analytics. Retrieved on April 2, 2020 from https://www.voteathome.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Utah-2016-Downballot-Analysis-FINAL-Pantheon-Analytics.pdf
Southwell, P., & Burchett, J. (2000). Does Changing the Rules Change the Players? The Effect of All-Mail Elections on the Composition of the Electorate. Social Science Quarterly (University of Texas Press), 81(3),837–845.
Stewart, C. (2017) 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections. Harvard Dataverse V1. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/Y38VIQ/2NJDL9
Szewczyk, J. (2018) How Electoral Institutions Affect Political Accountability: Evidence from All-Mail Elections. Working Paper. Retrieved on April 2, 2020 from https://www.voteathome.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Emory-research-into-VAH-down-ballot-impact.pdf
Thompson, D.M., Yoder, J., Wu, J., & Hall, A.B. (2020) The Neutral Partisan Effects of Vote-by-Mail: Evidence from County-Level Rollouts. Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). Working Paper No 20-015. Retrieved from https://siepr.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/20-015.pdf