Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Sacramento hearing on by-mail voting tomorrow?

I was asked some questions pertaining to a hearing in Sacramento, CA tomorrow, I presume relating to the request to move to an all by-mail voting system for some counties.

The pitch seems to be that by-mail voting will increase turnout among lower income and minority voters. My responses are below, for those who are interested. I am not testifying, I am only helping another political science professor who will testify (no, not Mike Alvarez).

Based on what we know to this point (and that's important, since the terrain of early voting and vote by mail is changing so rapidly):

  • I have not seen any studies of by mail's impact on primary elections. I have seen research on by mail in low intensity contests (most often, off cycle state and local elections), and the research shows that turnout is higher among regular voters--those who would go to the polls in most circumstances but may not if inconvenienced by the need to go to a precinct place.

    There is no evidence of by-mail *expanding* the electorate to otherwise disempowered groups (racial and linguistic minorities).

    For citations, Berinky et al. (200x POQ), Oliver (199x AJPS on absentee balloting, not the same as by mail voting), Magleby 199x article on by mail voting.

  • I think I have already answered this in my response to 1). No evidence of increased turnout. I should note that there was some evidence of increased turnout in the in-person early voting system in Florida in 2004 (see my most recent APSA paper) and in in-person systems in Texas in some elections (see Leighley and Stein APSA paper), but this is critically dependent upon the mobilization efforts of political parties and other GOTV organizations.

  • Yes, this is exactly what happens, but among those who are otherwise predisposed to vote. All-mail does not make voting "convenient" enough, apparently, to overcome the barriers that otherwise stand in the way of higher turnout in minority and disempowered communities.

So what I would say to the registrar is that, as far as turnout goes, by-mail is not a panacaea. It solves some problems (it increases turnout in local elections and probably would do the same in primaries), but may create others (undercutting the civic event that constitutes an election). We don't know much yet about the latter. The biggest hurdle to turnout is efficacy and feelings of disengagement--by mail voting does not address this.

By-mail voting may make it easier to voter among those facing linguistic or other barriers to turnout, but we simply don't know enough yet to say for sure.

> Hi Paul,
> I've been asked by the local registrar to answer these questions in preparation for a hearing in Sacramento tomorrow. Not a lot of advance notice, I know, but I wonder if you can help me? It's not really my area of expertise, so references to any research out there that answers these questions (or just some knowledgable opinions) would be greatly appreciated:
> * How do all-mail elections influence minority voter turnout in primary elections?
> * Do all-mail elections increase voter turnout in low-income communities?
> * Does an all-mail election motivate those to vote who were "too busy" to go to the polls in past elections? (Perhaps minority citizens that have two jobs, are single-parents, etc)
> thanks,


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