Coronavirus has altered every social paradigm including how and where we eat, work, and interact with people. Voting won’t be spared.
The few in-person elections that have taken place post-lockdown have seen a mixed bag of long lines, cranky voters, and even outright chaos. For some inside and outside the campaign space, universal absentee voting seems like a simple solution, but politics, logistics, and money are three major reasons why it may not soon be coming to your state.
Pre-COVID only five states were set up for universal mail voting: Washington, Oregon, Utah, Hawaii, and Colorado. Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C. offer no-excuse absentee voting, but that’s only guaranteed in federal elections and each voter must request a ballot for that election. Sixteen states require a reason to vote absentee under their “excuse-required absentee voting” policies.
In recent weeks, many states, including those with upcoming primary elections, have made emergency changes to their rules and election laws to allow for no-excuse or “COVID-19” excuse absentee voting. Here’s what campaigns and consultants need to know about vote by mail going forward:
Officials are racing to educate voters on the process.
At our firm, we’ve worked closely with secretaries of state and many county boards of election for decades. While these offices are valiantly trying to keep up with the flood of requests for absentee ballots, many tell us it’s a struggle to get the ballots printed, stuffed, and sent out to voters.
Mail ballots require a specific type of envelope and are filled with instructions and other information to be included in addition to the printed ballots themselves and ballots must be customized to the districts in which the voters live. States and counties that have switched to electronic voting machines now have to go back to printers or fire up their internal printing operations.
States that have transitioned to all-mail-voting had months or years to educate the public about the process. In states that have recently changed their vote-by-mail rules to mostly or all-mail voting, election officials simply want to get the ballots out the door and are being bombarded by questions about when their ballot will arrive or how to return it.
The cost of printing ballots, mailing them and paying for the additional staffing to prepare and then count all of these ballots will be a factor. But a number of offices told us because of the limiting of in-person early and Election Day voting locations, they’re seeing some of their typical election year costs drop. That, in some ways, is offsetting part of the budgetary pain.
Politics will also play a role — especially long-term. While motivations and justifications for a move toward mail voting can be debated in any particular case, the decisions made by public officials are increasingly being seen through partisan lenses and changes for November and beyond are far from settled. Partisan conflicts among government officials of opposing parties have erupted recently in Texas, Florida and other states. Ironically, some studies have suggested that there may not be any partisan advantage associated with increased use of mail voting.
Be ready to make decisions on incomplete data sets.
From a data and campaign perspective, there are good and bad effects associated with additional absentee voting.
Perhaps the best part of large-scale or universal vote-by-mail for campaigns is that, in many states, a wealth of new data will become available. Speak with any California consultant and he or she will tell you that for years they’ve been targeting the electorate based on when a voter is likely to return an absentee ballot and have tried to communicate with them just prior to their likely ballot completion.
Many states and counties will make the return and request data available. This empowers campaigns and consultants with the ability to reach those voters receiving a vote-by-mail ballot for the first time and to remove those voters who have already voted from their mail, walk, email and digital efforts.
The downside of a ramp up of vote-by-mail efforts for campaigns is that in an already new and changing landscape, this is a dramatic change. Data-driven campaign decisions in states like New York, Texas, and New Hampshire in which absentee ballots formerly reflected a tiny portion of the electorate will potentially become election-changing decisions. Unfortunately, many consultants in these states have had little-to-no experience dealing with this new system.
Another significant downside is that without polling and analytics, it’s going to be impossible to know what the vote-by-mail electorate is going to look like for 2020. We’ve taken a look at all of those currently registered in our national voter file who are flagged as absentee voters. Here are some the demographic breakdowns:
Total Number of Voters Registered as Permanent Absentee: 19,802,422 (10.05% of Electorate)
East & Southeast Asian: 8.3%
African American: 3.0%
Age Breakdown Among Permanent Absentee Population:
18-24 years old: 9%
25-34 years old: 16%
35-49 years old: 21%
50-64 years old: 24%
These numbers are going to change dramatically in the next few months as more states adopt permanent absentee and vote-by-mail programs but the initial turnout data in states like California shows that the 2020 electorate by mail is looking younger and more diverse than in past primary elections.
Get to know the rules, which will likely change.
You need to ensure you’re playing the same game as everyone else in the city, district or state. You also want to make sure you’re on the secretary of state or county board of elections email list to receive notifications of changes to voting procedures that have been happening on a weekly basis since late March.
Second, ask your data provider to find out what absentee or vote-by-mail data will be available and on what schedule in the lead up to the election. Also, ask if a state has a permanent absentee file and what the update cadence is for those data. In many states, new to absentee voting, historical data will either not be available or be available only for an insignificant portion of the electorate. But if that’s an available dataset, request that as well — even if it’s small.
Third, pay attention and invest in polling and analytics. Historic turnout data is one of the most powerful tools we have in the political data space. Absentee voting is going to add new layers to those data, but if your state or county is new to absentee or vote-by-mail voting you’ll only have data on those poll voters or election day turnout voters.
These data are a good start, but to get the best picture of the electorate in your district polling and layering a likely turnout model onto your voter file is going to be critical.
Paul Westcott is Senior Vice President at L2, a national non-partisan voter file provider.