How Does Vote By Mail Affect Voters?
A natural experiment examining individual-level turnout
by Elizabeth Bergman, CSU East Bay, Philip Yates, Cal State Pomona, Elaine Ginnold, Registrar of Voters Marin County, Ca -- A Project Sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts Pew Center on the States
In California’s last election on May 19, 2009, a record 62.19% of voters in the state cast their ballots by mail. Across the nation, twenty-four states allow No Excuse Absentee Voting. Voters appear to be latching on to the relaxation of laws giving them access to the new mode of voting.
However, it is important to note that in all but two states, voting by mail is optional. As much as officials and proponents of the change to all-mail elections would like to use the high participation rate of vote by mail as positive indicators regarding a mode change, the reality is that these data are based on self-selected behavior. In other words, a majority of California voters chose to cast their ballot by mail.
What would happen if voting by mail became compulsory? What would happen to the 37.81% who expressed no desire for voting by mail when they are required to change over to a new system? We answer that question in this paper.
In this study we take advantage of a natural experiment following the same voters to ascertain the individual-level effects on turnout when voters are assigned to mandatory mail-ballot precincts. In analyzing the behavior of 97,381 individual voters across four recent elections in California we find that:
When a mandatory vote-by-mail system is implemented, the estimated odds of an individual voter voting decreases by 13.2%.
Communicating with voters about mandatory vote-by-mail matters a great deal and can eventually overcome the negative effect of being forced to vote by mail. This occurs when at least 4 pieces of communication are sent out by elections officials.
Across voter stratifications, being forced to vote by mail has negative effects on the turnout of urban and minority (Hispanic and Asian) populations. For a mail ballot precinct and fixed election characteristics, the estimated odds of voting decreases:
- 50% for urban voters;
- 30.3% for Asian voters;
- 27.3% for Hispanic voters
Party effects show Democratic voter odds increase 5.99% over Republicans.
Age estimated odds of voting increase 3.80% for each additional year a voter ages.
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