Mailed Ballots Boosted 2020’s Voter Turnout — Will It Work in 2022?

States that mailed a ballot to every registered voter in 2020’s presidential election saw voter turnout increase by an average of 5.6 percent, and turnout was even higher among infrequent voters, according to the first peer-reviewed academic study of 2020 mail voting.

The increase in turnout was slightly greater than previous studies of mail-based voting conducted before 2020’s election, where 71 million-plus voters, including voters in swing states, turned to mailed-out ballotsIn response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Less convenient versions of mail-based voting, such as local officials sending all voters an application to fill out and submit before receiving a ballot, or a state relaxing that application’s criteria but still requiring voters to apply, had smaller impacts on lifting voter turnout.

“We tested these different approaches,” said Eric McGhee, a coauthor of this study and a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. “And of those three approaches, we found that the only consistent effect, either on turnout or on the composition of the electorate, was that mailing everybody a ballot elevates turnout.”

McGhee’s paper, “Vote-by-Mail Policy and the 2020 Presidential Election,” which will be published later this yearBy the scholarly journal Research and Politics, was co-authored by PPIC’s Jennifer Paluch and the University of Southern California’s Mindy Romero.

The research, which surveyed county-level turnout from 1992 through 2020, buoys claims by voter advocates that getting mailed-out ballots directly into voters’ hands—especially in states with automatic voter registration—could be pivotal in 2022’s midterm elections, when historic patterns suggest November’s turnout may fall to two-thirds of the presidential election.

“Voters of color clearly want, need, and use VBM [vote-by-mail] options,” said a February paper by the Deliver My Vote Education Fund(DMVEF), a group that aims to increase voter turnout in communities where people of color. The use of mailed-out ballots in 2020 was “staggering” compared to 2016, it said, especially in battleground states.

The advocacy group found that Michigan saw a drop in voting participation from 26 percent to 59 percent in its electorate who voted with mailed ballots in 2016, to 59 percent in 2020. reported. Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate increased from 4 percent to 40%. Among Michigan’s Black voters, using mailed-out ballots increased by 47 percent. Among Pennsylvania’s Black voters, mailed-out ballot usage increased 42 percent; among Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, by 56 percent.

“But historically, turnout in [federal]Turnout in midterm elections has been significantly lower than that in [presidential] general elections,” DMVEF said. “We do not have to accept that. There is still time to do more for increased midterm voter turnout overall and VBM use in 2022. The DMVEF is dedicated not just to supporting the VBM movement, but to propelling it.”

The Deliver My Vote Education Fund is not the only voice making this argument that getting mailed-out ballots in voters’ hands could change the dynamics of 2022’s midterms.

“There’s no better way to materially increase the odds that potential 2022 midterm ‘dropout/no-show’ voters will actually consummate the voting act than getting tens of millions of mailed-out ballots in their hands at least three to four weeks before the polls close on November 8, 2022,” said a memo sent to congressional Democrats shared by a well-known advocate. “Campaigns often hinge on small, even razor-thin, margins.”

Are you encouraging or overpromising?

Vote-by-mail proponents note that voters in every 2022 battleground state, except Georgia, can now apply to receive a mailed-out ballot for all of 2022’s elections. (In GeorgiaThe period for applying opens 78 days prior to the election. Do not feel discouraged. punditsAnd partisansAdvocates say that there is not much that can be done to prevent major electoral losses next year.

They point to New Jersey, where, in 2020’s presidential election, every registered voter was mailed a ballot. (The state adoptedAutomatic voter registration in 2018. New Jersey had the highest turnout of any state among young voters between 18 and 29 in 2020. 67 percent. But in 2021’s statewide elections, where local officials did not mail every voter a ballot and reverted to its prior mix of absentee, early in-person, and Election Day voting, the turnout among voters ages 18 to 29 fell to 20 percent. The “absent Democratic voter problem” for voters of all ages was also seen in New York and Pennsylvania in 2021, the memo lobbying congressional Democrats said.

“The 2020 election was a perfect storm,” Deliver My Vote Education Fund’s paper concluded. “Voters and election administrators who never would have considered voting from home instead of an election booth, made different decisions. The 2022 midterm elections provide a once in a lifetime opportunity to continue this extraordinary expansion of VBM for all voters.”

Researchers who study youth voting and voting via mail are more cautious about their projections. They claim that turnout is affected by specific factors, especially for youth.

PPIC’s McGhee said that mailing every voter a ballot has a bigger effect than what was reported by the New York Times’ Nate Cohn in April 2021, where Cohn said that the balloting option had “limited import” and cited a study, whose data was from 1996 through 2018, that concluded it “increases turnout by only about 2 percent with no discernible partisan advantage.”

One reason for the difference between McGhee’s research and Cohn’s figures is that McGhee was looking at turnout as a percentage of registered voters, while the study cited by Cohn looked at the larger population of all eligible citizens—which includes unregistered voters. McGhee’s findings showed that turnout increased by an average 5.6 percent each year when all eligible citizens were mailed a vote.

“What’s remarkable about our paper is not that we find universal vote by mail raises turnout, but that we find it really didn’t change in 2020,” McGhee said. “In the midst of a crazy election year and the pandemic and everything, it had the same effect as in previous years.”

McGhee and colleagues discovered factors that both boosted or decreased turnout.

The counties with all registered voters receiving a ballot by mail had the highest increases. Additionally, the jurisdiction had a very low history of absentee voting usage, other than military and overseas voters. In those settings, sending infrequent voters a ballot without that voter having to do more work lifted the presidential election turnout by “6 to 8 percent,” McGhee said. “The turnout boost is reaching people who were otherwise not on the radar.”

He said the opposite was also true. Turnout was reduced by adding more steps for voters to receive a mailed ballot. Those steps, from less to more rigorous, include officials sending applications to voters (which must be filled out and returned) to suspending the state’s prior “excuse” requirement to qualify for a ballot, but still requiring voters to apply on their own.

Turnout increases “when you mail everyone a ballot. Everything else was more complicated,” McGhee said. “The impact was either very small or dependent on how you slice and dice it.”

McGhee’s team also found, surprisingly, that expanding vote-by-mail options in 2020 seemed to help Republicans more than Democrats—“precisely the opposite of the claims made by former President Trump and others,” their paper noted. That’s most likely because before 2020, most of the states and counties that had embraced the use of mailed-out ballots in 2020 “generally trended Democratic.”

Return to New Jersey

A few states, mostly blue bastions like California and Vermont have moved to universal voting with mailed ballots since 2020. Nevada, a purple-colored state and a major battleground, has also shifted to mail-based voter registration. New Jersey, however, which mailed all its voters a ballot in 2020 has returned to its pre-pandemic baseline. must applyTo vote by mail

McGhee was reluctant to overly ascribe the drop in dramatic voter turnout among youths ages 18 to 29 to New Jersey’s decision to not mail every voter a ballot in its 2021 state elections—in contrast to mailing all voters a ballot in the 2020 presidential election.

Kelly Beadle, the impact and outreach manager at Tuft University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), which tracks youth voting, said that New Jersey’s 2021 turnout of voters ages 18 to 29 was consistent with pre-2020 turnout trends. The state’s adoption of automatic voter registration eliminated that step for young people, which, in turn, contributed to the high voter turnout in the last presidential election, she said.

CIRCLE’s post-2020 analysisMcGhee’s colleagues confirmed the findings of McGhee. She stated that 57% of youths who were sent a ballot by mail in 2020 voted. Fivety-two percent of youths who received a ballot application were able to vote. Half of those youths who applied to vote in a state that had suspended the excuse requirement ended up voting. 42 percent of the youths who voted in states where the excuse requirement was not lifted voted. (Overall, the 2020 youth turnout was the highest since the voting-age was lowered from 18 to 18, CIRCLE reported.)

Beadle highlighted that voting by mail is a different process for students than it was for older people. Young people move more often. They must re-register or update the information in many states before they can get a ballot. Outreach groups use many apps to assist young people in registering and planning to vote. However, other factors can influence turnout, such as their interest and their peers.

“I think the biggest thing that remains to be seen in 2022 is we know that young people get their information about voting from a variety of different sources, whether it’s their friends, family members, co-workers, professors or teachers,” Beadle said. “In a year [2020]Over half of the population submits their ballots by mail. People will talk about voting from many different sources. We don’t know if that’s going to be the case in 2022.”

With snow still on the ground in many northern states, it may be hard for advocates to get young people to focus on spring’s primaries or November’s midterms. It may also be difficult for activists to convince people to apply online for a mailed ballot. But research by PPIC’s McGhee and CIRCLE suggests that getting a ballot into a voter’s hands increases their chances of voting. Any new voting bloc could be pivotal in lower-turnout midterms.

“There’s reason to believe the effects would be larger,” said McGhee. “These kinds of election reform effects tend to be larger in lower-turnout elections where there are more people who are already sitting on the sidelines.”

Author’s Note: Here are links to the online applications to receive a mailed-out ballot for 2022’s elections in battleground states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. FloridaVoters are required to contact their county elections office. This can be done via email. NevadaWe will mail each registered voter a vote.