Before the 2020 election, voting by mail was becoming increasingly popular and common. Most polls before 2020, showed that voting by mail was also popular across the political spectrum. But all of that changed in the 2020 election. Democratic injudicious, ad hoc expansions of the mail-in voting in the 2020 election and Trump’s unsubstantiated broadside against the practice has now made voting by mail a partisan issue. A recent UH poll found that Texans are almost perfectly split, largely along partisan lines, on whether to expand voting by mail to all voters.
However, I generally find that there is far more heat than light in the discussion about voting by mail. Very few people I talk to about this issue have much appreciation of the history or the procedural issues and challenges involved in voting by mail.
History & Current Practices
Before the mid-20th century, mail-in balloting was almost exclusively limited to U.S. military personnel serving away from their homes. The earliest documented account of casting votes by mail was in the War of 1812, when Pennsylvania allowed servicemen fighting in the war to mail in their ballots. The first large-scale mail balloting was during the Civil War and was routine during WWII.
As early as the 1880s, a handful of states began to offer mail-in voting to civilians on a limited basis, typically because of a physical disability or absence from the state. Today, every state offers some option for voting by mail.
In 1974, Oregon became the first state to allow “no excuse” mail-in voting, i.e., anyone who chooses to can cast their ballot by mail. Since then, Oregon has been joined by 23 other states in allowing unrestricted mail-in ballots.
Eight states (California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington) mail ballots to every registered voter but also provide for an in-person voting option. Another 15 states conduct certain small jurisdiction elections entirely by mail.
Eighteen states still limit mail-in voting to certain circumstances. Mail-in voting for disabled voters and those absent from their states on election day are universally allowed. Forty states allow any voter over 65 to vote by mail.
While most of the media narrative over the last year has been about Republican states moving to tighten mail-in voting rules, there is less of a partisan pattern to the restrictions on mail-in voting than depicted in the media. Of the 18 states that still limit mail-in voting certain groups, 11 voted for Trump and seven voted for Biden, including the President’s home state of Delaware. Of the ten states that do not allow universal mail-in ballots for those over 65, half voted for Trump and half voted for Biden. Ironically, Republican states have historically led in allowing no-excuse mail-in voting for seniors to encourage turnout in that demographic.
Effect on Voter Turnout
Advocates for voting by mail argue that widespread use of the practice would increase voter turnout. But the data does not show dramatic increases in turnout. In the 2005, James Baker and Jimmy Carter chaired the Commission on Federal Election Reform. The Commission issued a detailed report covering a wide range of elections issues.. The commission concluded that greater access to mail-in voting only had “limited impact” on turnout.
The turnout among the states in the 2020 election showed a relatively small difference based on their mail-in rules. I divided the states into three categories: (1) mail ballots to all registered voters; (2) have no-excuse mail-in voting but do not mail ballots to all registered voters and; (3) limit mail-in voting to certain groups, primarily disabled, over-65 and absent from state.
The first two categories definitely have a higher turnout rate than states that continue to limit voting by mail. But many factors affect turnout, such as education level, age and socio-economic status. It is hard to know how this difference would hold up if the data was controlled for other relevant variables. My guess is that more liberal voting by mail rules would improve turnout, but that the increase would probably be relatively small.
Of course, the big issues on peoples’ minds are what effect more voting by mail might have on the outcome of elections and its susceptibility fraudulent voting.
More on that topic next time.