What you're about to read is incredibly dry. Most of you will be bored. But all of you need to know everything possible about vote by mail (VBM) because it's coming.
The Bipartisan Policy Center believes that half of all ballots cast this fall will be via mail — a 190-percent increase over 2016. We won't know if that's an overestimate until we see if there’s a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall. But we do know that VBM research can now make the difference on an increasing number of campaigns. If what we expect to happen happens, every day will be Election Day.
Sorting through the research, we know that VBM is supported by the overwhelming majority of voters, but that doesn't help us win elections. Knowing who votes by mail and why makes all the difference. There’s a good amount of research, produced by the academic world that's been overlooked by many for a decade. Here what practitioners need to know:
VBM can increase turnout.
Much of the early research is based on the experience in Oregon, which began testing vote by ail in 1981 and moved to universal vote by mail in the early 1990s. An influential study produced by America Politics Quarterly concluded that turnout increased 10 percent when controlling for other variables. The study looked at variables such as competitiveness, how the absentee ballot is obtained, and other factors as well.
Georgia State University looked at the same data and concluded the exact same thing. They concluded the effect is similar for midterms and presidential elections, and the largest three factors promoting turnout are education level and whether there was a gubernatorial or Senate race. Twelve years after the Georgia State study, Reed College and UC Irvine looked at the same data and later years and found turnout increases of only 2-4 percent.
Pew Charitable Trusts assessed Colorado’s vote by mail balloting three years after the state enacted enabling legislation and saw similar growth in turnout. Statewide, turnout in Colorado grew from 51.7 percent in 2010 to 54.7 percent in 2014. But some criticized the study because midterm turnout had been increasing since 1994, so it's debatable whether the increase was due to the new law or evidence of a much longer-term trend in the state.
Another 2013 study of Washington State by Yale University found voters with a history of sporadic participation in elections were more likely to cast ballots as a result of the vote-by-mail changes. Overall they found that switching to an all-mail election increased aggregate turnout in Washington counties by 2-4 percentage points, depending on the election type.
The best study we've seen was conducted two years ago by Amelia Showalter at Pantheon Analytics. Showalter showed an increase in 5-7 percent in turnout but more interestingly, tested one homogeneous community in rural Utah. The community, located in two counties with different voting rules, had a dramatic change in turnout.
Those residents living in the county that permitted VBM had a 12.5-percent higher turnout than those community residents who lived in the county that required polling-place-only voting. Using TargetSmart turnout scores, predicted turnout in the 2016 general election was 1.8 percent lower than predicted in non-VBM counties, and 5.2 percent higher than predicted in VBM counties. The study also confirmed the Yale University study that the biggest increases were among the group with the lowest turnout scores.
So We Know VBM Increases Turnout, Especially Among Lower Propensity Voters. But What Type of Low Propensity Voters?
The findings here gets more interesting and should make some candidates nervous. Researchers from Stanford, UC Berkeley, and the University of Washington found that VBM mostly turned out young people (+15%), African Americans (+13.2%), Asian Americans (11.2%) and LatinX (10%). The study was done in Colorado and covered elections between 2010 and 2018.
The good news for candidates spooked by the numbers above is that two separate studies say the exact opposite. An MIT professor affiliated with the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project looked at who used voting by mail in the 2016 presidential election.
He found, with the exception of increased use among older voters over 65, there was “very little demographic difference in the use of mail ballots.”
Separately, in April 2020, Stanford University’s Institute of Economic Policy Research published an exhaustive assessment of the effects of voting by mail to determine whether the practice produces a partisan advantage and whether turnout is boosted.
The researchers relied on county voting data from 1996 through 2018 in three states that allow voting by mail. The findings:
- VBM doesn’t appear to affect either party’s share of turnout.
- VBM doesn’t appear to increase either party’s vote share.
- VBM modestly increases overall average turnout rates, in line with previous estimates.
Around the edges, we know that ballot design affects response rates. An evaluation by IDEO, a global design firm, and Los Angeles County found that the simplicity of the ballot design and its instructions increased accuracy of the completed ballots.
Two-thirds of those completing a mail-in ballot were able to complete it accurately. Those having the most trouble were people of color, new voters, Spanish speakers, and those with motor and visual impairments. Once states move ahead on increasing VBM access, look for fights around ballot design.
Campaigns should invest in data.
VBM is happening, which means every day is Election Day. Prepare for it by looking closely at VBM models produced by Deep Root Analytics, Haystaq, or others. Since your canvassing budget is likely to come down, use some of those funds to understand how people will be voting this fall. Then activate that segment through digital, direct mail, and even telemarketing.
Jordan Lieberman is VP and General Manager, Politics and Public Affairs at a4 Media.