The Los Angeles City Council asked for a report form their June Lagway, City Clerk, about the feasibility of going fully vote by mail for certain city elections.
The full report is contained here: http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2009/09-1222-S1_rpt_clk_11-18-09.pdf
I will give this more detailed attention over the weekend, but one comment jumped out at me immediately:
In addition to the 37% of voters using the VBM option for the 2009 Primary Nominating Election, VBM voters had a higher return rate (i.e., turnout percentage) of 41 %6. If the City turns to conducting all-VBM elections for municipal elections or for non-Citywide Special Elections, voter turnout may indeed increase; however, administering such elections raises some administrative challenges. (emphasis added)
It is extremely important for the Council to realize that citizens who choose to vote by mail are not the same citizens who vote at the polling place. I highlight the word “choose” because that choice, in and of itself, makes vote by mail voters very different from precinct place voters.
Absentee voters have chosen to request an absentee ballot. This means that are already a distinct segment of the population, one that is more likely to turn out to vote. In addition, we know that citizens who select the absentee / by mail option have other characteristics that are associated with higher turnout: they are older, better educated, and have higher incomes.
In short, higher turnout among “vote by mail” voters has little to do with the technology and everything to do with the kinds of citizens who
a) tell you months before the election “Hey, I am so interested in this election that I want you to send a ballot to my house,” and
b) are in demographic groups with a higher propensity to vote.
If you don’t believe that logic–which I think is pretty clear to anyone who thinks about this process, and it clear to most election officials who are involved in conducting elections–then you can look to research conducted in California on the impact of “forced” vote by mail balloting.
Because California allows clerks to require vote by mail in precincts with less than 250 registered voters, a number of scholars have been able to compare directly the impact of vote by mail on turnout (essentially, these scholars select “most similar” precincts that are just above and just below the 250 threshold, and compare turnout).
A number of these studies were recently presented at “Time Shifting the Vote: The Early Voting Revolution in America.” These studies generally show a negative impact of “forced” vote by mail on turnout. While these studies, funded by the Pew Center on the States, are not yet in the public domain, work by Thad Kousser of UC San Diego is, and he shows the same thing.
I am pretty sure that if LA County goes to full vote by mail for municipal contests, it will increase turnout. The reason is that voters will get that municipal ballot and fill it out when they would have otherwise not bothered to go to the polling place.
But past return data from VBM vs. precinct place registrants gives us little indication of how much turnout will increase. And it is also likely that turnout, while higher, will still display the same racial and income disparities–they may even be exacerbated– that we observe in precinct place voting.