Pippa Norris Examines Postal-Voting On Demand in the UK

Pippa Norris examines postal voting (what we call by-mail absentee voting) in the UK in a paper for the upcoming APSA conference (see yesterday’s blog for a discussion of Charles Stewart’s paper on the same panel). “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic?” wades into the debate over whether no-excuse absentee voting increases turnout, but does so from a refreshing, international perspective.

Norris reminds us of the theoretical pros and cons of no-excuse absentee voting. The pros are easy: this procedure makes voting less costly, which should boost turnout. The cons are that no-excuse absentee voting can undermine public confidence in elections and actually discourage voting. So which is it? Is no-excuse absentee voting a panacea or a pandora’s box?

Norris uses the 2005 British Election Survey, which is a panel survey conducted before and after the election to gain leverage on this question. She first notes the macro finding: absentee voting was up from 4 percent in 2001 to 15 percent in 2005. This finding begs the question of whether this increase consists of new voters who were drawn to vote by the low cost of voting via mail, or whether it consists of habitual voters who just decided to use the post instead of the polls to cast their ballot.

Analyzing the British Election Survey, Norris finds that familiarity breeds love, and contempt (or at least concern). First, she finds that voters who were in areas that had conducted postal voting trials in 2004 elections were more likely to use postal voting in 2005. Also, special needs voters, the retired, and the elderly all were more likely to use postal voting. People who used postal voting said that they did so because it was convenient, their health limited their getting out, or they had used the post to vote before and liked it. However, postal voting also raises fraud concerns, which are reflected in survey data. About 3 percent of polling place voters thought their ballot succeptable to fraud, compared to 24 percent of postal voters.

Norris concludes that “But beyond specific populations, the initiative failed to generate much greater turnout overall and nor did it generate greater social equality in the voting population.” However, one might question whether helping the disabled and the elderly–as well as conveniencing others–might not be worthwhile in itself. The findings and other studies by the U.K.’s Electoral Commission do suggest that postal voting, over time, might habituate more voters to cast ballots, especially in off-year elections. As we will blog later in the week, the British model of experimentation in election reforms will continue to produce great data on how well various reforms work.