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Vote By Mail

Voters wait hours in long lines to cast their early vote at the Summit County Board of Elections on Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, in Akron, Ohio. About 30 million people have already voted in 34 states and the District of Columbia, either by mail or in person. (AP Photo/Akron Beacon Journal, Paul Tople)

There’s a whole lot of lessons from this disaster. One of them is that voting in person is dumb and should end. Several western states have already figured that out. But if you can’t suppress voters, how can Republicans win? Since this is the literal stated position of the party, it’s hard to see it happening nationally. But the momentum is absolutely there and this should expand tremendously.

Our new research, published yesterday, shows that elections with all-mail voting increase turnout among everyone, especially groups that tend to vote less frequently. Those results merit permanent, wide-scale shifts. Currently, registered voters automatically get a ballot by mail in five states: Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii. A few other states have all-mail voting in small jurisdictions, and California has been gradually rolling it out.

Before this year, the results of research into all-mail voting’s turnout effect had been mixed. Past studies of all-mail voting, mostly of its early years in Oregon and California, argued that it does boost turnout, but mainly for those who already vote. If that remained true, then mail voting could actually exacerbate present inequalities in political participation.

So when we began our research, we wouldn’t have been surprised by unequal outcomes. Young people, notorious for their low turnout rates, use traditional mail less than other groups. And people of color — who have been subjected to centuries of voter discrimination — might be skeptical of adopting big changes to an electoral system that has disadvantaged them.

Our findings show, however, that low-turnout groups are the very groups that stand to benefit most from all-mail voting. Focusing on Colorado’s recent switch to vote-by-mail in 2013 and using the voter file — a comprehensive record of who turns out in American elections — we find that turnout goes up among everyone, especially the historically disenfranchised: young people, voters of color, less-educated people and blue-collar workers.

In Colorado, a traditional swing state, ballots are mailed to all registered voters, who can then choose to mail back their completed ballot or drop it in one of many secure collection boxes. (Denver alone has about 30 throughout the city.) Or voters take it to a county vote center, staffed with personnel, to cast their ballot in person. Vote centers are open during an early voting period as well as on Election Day.

Actual democracy? No wonder Republicans hate voting by mail! The funny thing is that the evidence doesn’t actually demonstrate that Republicans are hurt by this.

We also examine the inevitable question on politicians’ minds: What will this do for my re-election prospects? Looking at voters by political party, we find that Democrats and Republicans benefit about the same amount: around 8 percentage points.

This is somewhat surprising, given that groups historically associated with voting for Democrats benefit most from mail voting. One explanation may be that in Colorado, young people are choosing to register as independents rather than as Democrats. In fact, we found that Colorado’s shift to vote-by-mail increased the turnout of independents by 12 percentage points, more than among members of either major party.

It should be noted that while our findings suggest national voting by mail could do wonders alone, voting experts rate Colorado’s system so highly because it also allows for same-day registration. This ensures that people who miss the state’s registration deadline for mail voting can still register and vote in person. (Colorado also proactively updates voter addresses using the United States Postal Service’s National Change of Address database and, as of 2017, provides automatic voter registration throughout the state.)

Since Rhode Island has a dumb political system, we don’t have excuse-free absentee voting. That means the state has to send out a form to everyone to fill out about why you aren’t voting in person for our June primary, then you have to mail it back, then the state sends you the ballot, then you send it back. So it’s not just red states that need to figure this out.

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