Want to Increase Turnout? Make It Easier to Vote at Home

“It all comes down to turnout” is one of the oldest cliches in elections. But tired cliches are often so because they are true, and in today’s increasingly polarized electorate turnout has never been as crucial vis-a-vis persuasion of undecideds as it is today.

It has long been to Republican advantage to decrease overall turnout: after all, the party of the wealthy and well-connected few do best when the much larger group of marginalized people do not vote. But the current Republican demographic crisis has intensified the need for voter suppression, as the rising younger, multi-racial electorate spells eventual doom for a party that has doubled down on older conservative whites.

Democrats for their part have increasingly focused on structural efforts to increase turnout, from automatic voter registration to early voting and much more. California in particular has implemented a wide range of such programs, and even a few days ago passed a bill out of the Senate to pre-pay postage on mail-in ballots.

But it’s not just a left-right issue. Both red and blue states have been implementing what is perhaps the most effective method of increasing voter turnout: mail voting. Counties and states that have moved to full vote-at-home programs have seen turnout increase, often dramatically.

A new report prepared by Pantheon Analytics on behalf of our own Washington Monthly on the effects a mail-vote-only program in Utah shows significant turnout increases.

In the 2016 general election, twenty-one counties in Utah administered voting
entirely by mail, while eight counties administered traditional polling place-based
voting. Using vote propensity scores to control for voters’ pre-existing differences
in likelihood to vote, we show that the advent of vote-by-mail increased turnout by
5-7 points. Low-propensity voters, including young voters, showed the greatest
increase in turnout in vote-by-mail counties relative to their counterparts in
non-vote-by-mail counties. We find similar results by zooming in on specific
geographic areas within Utah where vote-by-mail counties are bordered by
non-vote-by-mail counties, with magnitudes of 4-9 points of increased turnout. In
one mountaintop community that happened to be bisected by a county line, the
increase in turnout due to vote-by-mail may have been as high as 12.5 points.

David Leonhardt at the New York Times highlighted the issue and the new report as well in an excellent column today:

After digging into the research, I’ve come to think that universal vote-by-mail may have the biggest potential to lift turnout. It eliminates hurdles, like long lines at polling places and logistical difficulties of voting on a workday. (As a bonus, it usually saves money.)

The research on the turnout effects is still in the early stages. So far, though, no other reform can claim as much encouraging evidence as mail-based voting.The Utah analysis, which is being released Monday, follows a peer-reviewed study of Washington State that found voting-by-mail increased turnout by between two and four percentage points. In both states, turnout rose the most among groups that tended to vote the least, such as younger adults. Colorado and Oregon also have all-mail voting — and above-average turnout.

It’s not just in Utah. The effects are being seen all over the U.S. where similar such programs are being implemented:

Last week, a county in western Nebraska tried something new. With permission from Secretary of State John Gale, Garden County conducted its May 15 primary election entirely by mail. A ballot was mailed to every registered voter, to be returned, either by post or at a drop box, by the day of the election.

That simple change boosted voter turnout in Garden County to 58.7 percent. The average for all other Nebraska counties? 24.3 percent — less than half that. (Oh, and the county’s results were available less than an hour after the polls closed.)

It was a little like what happened last month, when the city of Anchorage, Alaska, home of almost half the state’s population, held its first vote-by-mail city elections. Voter turnout hit 34 percent,breaking a record set in 2012. (Among other things, Anchorage residents rejected an anti-transgender bathroom measure.)

In 2016 California passed SB450, allowing counties to move entirely to mail-in ballots. The Voter’s Choice Act moved five counties fully to vote-by-mail: Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento and San Mateo. The full votes are still being counted, but early indications are that turnout improved significantly in those counties versus prior years.

There is much more information available at the newly created National Vote-At-Home Institute, including turnout improvements in North Dakota, Minnesota, Alaska, Nebraska, and elsewhere. Many other states including Maryland to Hawaii to Wyoming will be implementing similar programs.

It’s a small step toward reinvigorating democracy, but every bit helps.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.