Partisan advantages and absentee balloting?

By Michael Alvarez and Paul Gronke

We’ve received a bundle of media inquiries at electionupdates over the last week over the very high rates of absentee balloting. Does this indicate a higher than average turnout in this election? And is one party benefitted from no-excuse absentee balloting?

The conventional wisdom, at least as conveyed by most reporters to us, is that Republicans benefit from the extension of absentee ballot rules.

We’re not sure where this folk tale came from, but most of the evidence doesn’t support it, at least not stated in its most simple form. As John Fortier recently wrote, “political party mobilization efforts work hand in hand with mail voting.” A candidate or party that is well-funded can take advantage liberalized absentee balloting system to encourage early turnout by voters that they’ve targeted. And these same campaigns can then be more efficient in their mobilization efforts by no longer moblizing these voters once they have cast their ballots.

But otherwise, there is little evidence of partisan bias in absentee balloting systems, or in early voting systems more generally (for example, see the excellent work by Bob Stein of Rice University, who examines in person early voting in Texas; or Gronke’s papers on early voting in Miami/Dade County in 2004 and in Oregon).

We’re conducting some more systematic research into this question as we write this, but our initial reading of the situation is different than the conventional wisdom. We will of course update readers as we progress, but at this point the previous research on point here is pretty clear: absentee balloting doesn’t confer a partisan advantage.

Thus to us, the notion that Republicans reap disproportionate votes from absentee or early voters is somewhat of a political “urban legend.”

This “urban legend” often refers back to the 1982 gubernatorial election in California, luckily, an election that was studied by Samuel C. Patterson and Gregory A. Calderia in a seminal paper, “Mailing In the Vote: Correlates and Consequences of Absentee Voting” (published in the American Journal of Political Science, November 1985, Vol. 29, No. 4, pages 766-788.) Patterson and Calderia’s paper begins with a wonderful introduction, setting up the substantive research question well:

…California offered political observers an especially intriguing gubernatorial race in 1982. After a long campaign season in which the Democrat had held a substantial lead, it had come down to the wire and made for a spectacular political drama. Mervin Field’s California Poll showed Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, the Democratic candidate for governor, leading his Republican adversary, Attorney General George “Duke” Deukmejian, right up to the end of teh gubernatorial campaign. His exit polls projected Bradley as the winner … On election day, 2 November 1982, Bradley won more than half of the two-party vote … Yet, to the chagrin of Democrats in the Golden State, Deukmejian “snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.” When officials had counted absentee ballots, Deukmejian won the final reckning by garnering over 113,000 more of the votes cast in absentia than had been mailed in for Bradley …

How had this unusual electoral outcome transpired? In 1978 California’s legislature adopted a new law on absentee voting that abandoned restrictions limiting eligibility to those too ill to go to the polling stations, or to those who would be traveling on election day (766-767).

Patterson and Calderia go on to a series of multivariate statistical analyses of gubernatorial election results in California and Iowa, and find that “partisan candidates are likely to harvest absentee votes in the very localities where their party is otherwise strong” (784-785). They argue futher that:

Our evidence for California, and our comparison of California gubernatorial election results with Iowa’s, indictates no solid proof of special manipulation in California absentee voting. Governor Deukmejian is not the beneficiary or product of any new peculairity in the pattern of absent voting. Rather, he won the election merely because of the magnitude of absentee voting. And, of course, the absentee ballots proved decisive only in the trivial sense that officials counted them last (785).

Thus, this seminal paper looked at one of the very elections that appears to have given birth to this particular urban legend, subjected it to a detailed analysis, and has rejected the hypothesis that the Republican candidate won because of partisan disparities in absentee voting.

Again, there are other studies on point here, but Patterson and Calderia’s work is worth presenting here in detail because it looks at one of the races that gave rise to this “urban legend” and because of the systematic way in which they look at the question.