Voting by mail and turnout

The recent set of articles in the American Prospect typify the debate over voting by mail. By mail voting has some distinct advantages and some disadvantages. But let’s make sure we know what voting by mail does do, and what it does not do, before we advocate for its wholesale adoption.

Voting by mail is super convenient. Citizens can cast their ballots at a time and place of their own choosing. And there is little doubt that citizens feel good about voting by mail–numerous surveys in Oregon have shown overwhelming support for the method.

Election officials also like it. Don’t compare vote by mail to precinct place voting. In many states, such as California, more than a third of the ballots come in via the mail (absentee voting). In extreme cases, such as Washington state, more than 3/4 of ballots are absentee. (This is why many Washington counties–most notably King County, the state’s most populous–are going completely by-mail.)

In such “mixed” systems, where elections officials shoulder the costs not just of election day voting, but also widespread absentee balloting, it’s not surprising that they prefer to opt for one system. Post-election analyses, such as those produced by the Voting Technology Project at CalTech, show that absentee ballots are more likely to be counted, and counted more accurately, than ballots cast at a polling place.

So what’s the rub?

Articles like that by Robert Kuttner go beyond what we know about voting by mail to make grandiose, unsubstantiated, and often flat out wrong claims about voting by mail.

Let’s take the most commonly disseminated urban legend about voting by mail: that is enhances turnout. Kuttner makes the common fallacy of attributing all of Oregon’s turnout advantage to voting by mail: But the more deeply you explore the Oregon system, the better it looks. It costs less than half the traditional polling-place system, and has turnout 10.5 percentage points above the U.S. average.

This is, of course, completely silly. Oregon has always had higher turnout than the nation at large. One would think that Kuttner–listed as the editor at the Prospect–doesn’t read his own magazine, because the excellent article by Don Hamilton of the Portland Tribune shows the fallacy of the turnout claim (check out the chart–it tells the whole story).

By mail voting increases turnout only in lower profile, lower intensity contests (such as state and local elections). It does so by encouraging among regular voters. But if you are looking at voting by mail as a way to expand the electorate, or enhance participation among less empowered groups, there is no evidence that it will work.