The ongoing coronavirus crisis has brought a level of unpredictability to the coming presidential election that is perhaps unprecedented in American history.
Could voting-by-mail change voting patterns and reveal a radically different electorate? A new study into historical voting patterns suggests that the answer is no. If anything, vote-by-mail could actually boost turnout, according to the results.
At worst, voting-by-mail maintains historical levels of turnout.
Published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, the study pairs county-level data from 1992 through 2018 recorded across the US with over 40 million voting records in Utah and Washington state. The team wanted to examine if partisan voting patterns would change at all if voting switched to mandatory voting-by-mail.
According to study authors Michael Barber and John B. Holbein, voting patterns show a slight Democratic bias. “Our most precise estimates suggest that [voting-by-mail] increases Democratic vote shares by 0.7 percentage,” the authors write. “These effects are not close to statistically significant and are substantively small,” they added.
Overall, the data show vote-by-mail has a “modest positive effect on turnout,” but “no measurable effect on how well Democratic candidates perform at the ballot box.”
For years, mail-in voting has been associated with older and rural voters, who tend to skew Republican. Six states had some form of voting-by-mail before the coronavirus hit. Texas, for example, has no-excuse voting-by-mail available for anyone aged 65 or older. Nebraska allows counties with fewer than 10,000 people to vote through mail.
Although “these systems of [voting-by-mail] have differences of administration, they are all consistent “ in terms of their core principles, the study authors note. Namely, all constituents receive their ballots before Election Day, and they all limit (and in some cases, replace) in-person voting.