In this April 14, 2020 photo, Pam Fleming and fellow workers stuff ballots and instructions into mail-in envelopes at the Lancaster County Election Committee offices in Lincoln, Neb. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Emerson, Nebraska, is a farming town of 900 in the state’s sparse northeast expanse. Its Republican-leaning, nearly all-white population makes Emerson not unlike dozens of other rural communities in the state. It is unique, however, for being the only town in the state divided between three counties: Dixon County, which covers the western half of Emerson; and Dakota and Thurston Counties, which make up the northeastern and southeastern quadrants of the town, respectively.

Those odd lines made Emerson a litmus test for one of the most contentious issues in the 2020 election: vote by mail. Under state law, Nebraska counties with fewer than 10,000 residents have the option to conduct their elections entirely by mail by sending ballots to all registered voters. Dixon County chose to do so. Dakota and Thurston Counties decided otherwise and ran their elections the old-fashioned way, with polling places.

Donald Trump had warned in 2020 that mailing every voter a ballot would lead to massive fraud and undermine the Republican Party’s electoral chances. Political scientists, by contrast, had concluded that vote by mail had little, if any, effect on turnout. The citizens of Emerson, however, didn’t get the memos—or perhaps ignored them. Not only did voting in the town go off without a hint of fraud, but turnout on the all-mail Dixon County half of Emerson was 8.3 percent higher than on the other side of town, according to a new study by the National Vote at Home Institute (NVAHI), a nonprofit research organization.

The sample size was small in Emerson—there were only 496 total voters in 2020—but Amelia Showalter, the lead researcher on the NVAHI study, found the pattern held across Nebraska: Mailing voters their ballots directly increased turnout by between 2.7 and 4.6 percent. That’s a big effect for a voting policy intervention. “We’re thrilled if we get a one-percentage-point or a two-percentage-point bump in turnout,” Showalter says. But the real effect might have been even greater, she notes. Nebraska in 2020 automatically sent absentee ballot applications to voters in counties that didn’t implement all-mail voting. If that intervention modestly boosted turnout in those counties, it would have masked the all-mail-voting program’s full impact.

And what about the fears Trump tried to spread that vote by mail would hurt the GOP’s electoral chances? The NVAHI study addressed the issue of partisan effects. It found that in Nebraska counties that ran all-mail—or “vote at home”—elections, turnout percentages rose the most among registered Democrats and groups that lean in their direction, such as young people and Native Americans. But it also found that vote at home almost certainly yielded more votes for the GOP, for the simple reason that there are far more Republicans in rural Nebraska than Democrats. In other words, the partisan effects largely canceled each other out.

Nebraska was one of only two states in 2020, along with North Dakota, in which counties had the choice to run all-mail elections for offices up and down the ballot, including the presidency. That made it a natural experiment for Showalter to test the impact of vote by mail. Her findings in Nebraska were remarkably similar to those of a previous study she conducted of the 2016 elections in Utah, another bright-red state that allowed counties to run all-mail elections (Utah adopted vote-at-home statewide in 2019). By comparing the counties with and without full vote by mail, she found that all-mail balloting in Utah caused a 7 percent boost in turnout. Christopher Mann, a political scientist at Skidmore College who was not involved with either study, says that they are the closest researchers can get to a controlled, randomized trial in the real world. Of the turnout effects, he says, “We can feel pretty confident that that is a robust finding.”

Other recent research has come to similar conclusions. In January of this year, Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California and Mindy Romero of the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy published a peer-reviewed study of vote by mail and the 2020 election nationwide. They found that states which mailed a ballot to every registered voter in 2020’s presidential election saw voter turnout increase by an average of 5.6 percent, with no clear advantage to either political party.

Nevertheless, Trump’s continued lies about vote by mail have had an impact on Republican voters and policy makers. Over the past two years, GOP-controlled states have made it harder for citizens to vote by mail, and blue states have made it easier, as Prem Thakker has reported in the Monthly. “The result is that we’re really seeing these two different democracies evolve in our country,” Liz Avore, a senior policy adviser at the Voting Rights Lab, told me. “The state that you live in determines your level of ballot access, and vote by mail really epitomizes this developing divide.”

Less than two weeks before the midterms, almost twice as many Democrats as Republicans have requested a mail ballot in states where voters have a choice. The data from key swing states suggests that this split might impact the results of some races. In Michigan, a jump in requests for absentee ballots compared to the 2018 midterms is especially pronounced in the state’s populous blue counties. In Pennsylvania, 71 percent of mail ballot applications are from Democrats. Even in Florida, where the GOP embraced mail-in voting years before the Democratic Party, some 400,000 more Democrats have applied for an absentee ballot than have Republicans. “This idea that vote by mail is a form of voting that inherently advantages Democrats is just flat wrong,” Mann says. “It is a mode of voting that creates opportunities for political parties to mobilize their supporters.” In 2022, it’s Democrats who are seizing those opportunities.

Will Norris

Will Norris is an editor at the Washington Monthly.