Prop 205 in Arizona: “Right to Vote by mail”?

Proposition 205 in Arizona will implement voting by mail in Arizona. It has a prominent set of supporters (listed at Your Right to Vote of Arizona, including the League of Women’s Voters, a number of mayors, state representatives, and state senators, and other civic leaders.

The Arizona Republic provides a nice summary of the two sides to the initiative.

Sadly, both sides are making unsubstantiated claims about voting by mail. Proponents claim that voting by mail increases turnout “especially amongst people with disabilities, homemakers and young voters ages 18 to 38”.(see the main Your Right to Vote page), citing a “study by the University of Oregon.”

Southwell and Burchett’s December 2000 study (American Politics Quarterly) does show an increase in the three voting by mail elections when compared to 43 other elections, but this also corresponds to a potential novelty effect. The work has not been replicated in additional elections.

What they apparently draw upon is a 2003 study conducted by Southwell (available here). The problem with this study is that is is based purely on individual self-reports of what balloting type people “prefer” and what type they think makes them vote “more often.” This is purely a self-report, with a very questionable baseline for comparison. How many of us can really say how much “more likely” we are to vote compared to some unknown alternative?

The stronger evidence, which I have mentioned many times, is that voting by mail does improve turnout in lower intensity contests–such as state and local races and inititives–but does so not by drawing in new voters, but simply by activating regular voters.

The opponents are no better, though. Typically, they charge that voting by mail will increase voter fraud, although there is virtually no evidence of this in Oregon. Furthermore, as state officials in Oregon have often told me, at least under voting by mail, every signature is checked. People seem to think that the same thing happens at the precinct, but as anyone who has witnessed precinct place voting can tell you, no one compares signatures.

I’ve seen no polling data on this proposition to date. I’ll keep updates coming to the blog.