Will by-mail voting increase turnout among lower income and minority voters?

Paul Gronke has some useful summary information posted on his Earlyvoting blog. He received the same question that I did yesterday from a colleague, regarding whether or not there is any academic research as to whether by-mail voting might stimulate participate by lower income and minority voters.

Paul’s answers are worth repeating here, as he is one of the experts in this field and has been doing some excellent research on early and by-mail voting:

I have not seen any studies of by mail’s impact on primary elections. I have seen research on by mail in low intensity contests (most often, off cycle state and local elections), and the research shows that turnout is higher among regular voters–those who would go to the polls in most circumstances but may not if inconvenienced by the need to go to a precinct place.

There is no evidence of by-mail *expanding* the electorate to otherwise disempowered groups (racial and linguistic minorities).

For citations, Berinky et al. (200x POQ), Oliver (199x AJPS on absentee balloting, not the same as by mail voting), Magleby 199x article on by mail voting.

I think I have already answered this in my response to 1). No evidence of increased turnout. I should note that there was some evidence of increased turnout in the in-person early voting system in Florida in 2004 (see my most recent APSA paper) and in in-person systems in Texas in some elections (see Leighley and Stein APSA paper), but this is critically dependent upon the mobilization efforts of political parties and other GOTV organizations.

Yes, this is exactly what happens, but among those who are otherwise predisposed to vote. All-mail does not make voting “convenient” enough, apparently, to overcome the barriers that otherwise stand in the way of higher turnout in minority and disempowered communities.

So what I would say to the registrar is that, as far as turnout goes, by-mail is not a panacaea. It solves some problems (it increases turnout in local elections and probably would do the same in primaries), but may create others (undercutting the civic event that constitutes an election). We don’t know much yet about the latter. The biggest hurdle to turnout is efficacy and feelings of disengagement–by mail voting does not address this.

By-mail voting may make it easier to voter among those facing linguistic or other barriers to turnout, but we simply don’t know enough yet to say for sure.

This question has arisen because (as Paul correctly surmised) up in Sacramento there is a hearing going on this morning in the state Senate (Committee on Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments) considering AB 707, which would authorize by-mail elections in California in time for the June 6, 2006 statewide primary elections.

And no, I am not testifying at these hearings …