Voting by mail neither helps nor hurts Democrats or Republicans, according to a new study co-written by a Brigham Young University political scientist that evaluated 28 years of results in counties across the country that use the system.
“We ran dozens of analyses and every single time we found no impact in partisan vote shares,” BYU political science professor Michael Barber said.
“So, whether you’re advocating for vote-by-mail because you think it’s going to be really good for your party or advocating against it because you think it’s going to be bad for your party, you’re probably wasting your time.”
His study points out that President Donald Trump has repeatedly railed against voting by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic — including saying that it would make this year’s elections “the most inaccurate and fraudulent in history.” The president also predicting that with it, “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
But the study found no evidence to support that. It was published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, co-written by Barber and John B. Holbein of the University of Virginia.
“We were surprised at how consistent our results were,” Barber said, as they looked for — but did not find — evidence that voting by mail might help one party over another in a wide range of races, including for Congress, governorships and the U.S. presidency.
“We split the results out and looked at the presidential, gubernatorial, Senate and House races separately. We basically find the same thing across all four contexts, which is small increases in turnout and no benefit to one party or the other,” he said.
The study examined records from 1992 through 2018 in counties that use mandatory vote-by-mail in Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Nebraska and California, focusing on elections immediately before and after the system was implemented. To help provide a fine-grained analysis, the study included more than 40 million individual voting records from heavily Republican Utah and traditionally Democratic Washington.
“I think that our study provides the most comprehensive evidence that up until late 2018 or early 2019, vote by mail didn’t have any sort of partisan impact,” Barber said.
“In retrospect, it might almost seem obvious because if it did, it would be really rare for states like Utah and Washington to both adopt the policy. Through 2018, we had states that kind of ran the gamut ideologically adopting the policy,”
The study found that while vote-by-mail did increase overall voter turnout by about 2 to 3 percentage points, it did not change the outcome of races.
Barber said he was surprised that the increase in turnout was that modest — but notes that may be because they looked only at presidential and midterm races.
“I suspect that if we were to look at other elections where turnout is historically much lower — primary elections, municipal elections, off year elections, special elections, those types of scenarios — I imagine that we would probably find much larger increases in turnout as a result of vote by mail,” he said.
Barber said the higher turnout likely results from the conveniences offered by voting by mail. It gives voters days or weeks to complete a ballot, allowing time to research candidates. Voters can also avoid getting time off work to vote, traveling to polling locations and waiting in line.
Barber says he has been puzzled by arguments that vote by mail helps Democrats, including claims by some that it makes voting easier for some groups that favor Democrats, such as the low-income or immigrants.
“There are beliefs — I think incorrect beliefs — that voters who favor the Democratic Party tend to be less motivated to turn out to vote, so if you make it easier to vote you’ll get more of that group,” Barber said. “It turns out not to be the case.”
Barber said it’s unfortunate that voting by mail has become so politicized based on no real evidence.
“That’s unfortunate because what that means is states are going to have a much harder time changing their election policies in response to the pandemic,” he said.
“Looking at the situation that we’re in, vote by mail would seem to be the perfect solution,” Barber said. “It’s safe and secure. States have been doing it very successfully for a number of years, and it doesn’t require people gathering in large groups. It’s kind of exactly what we’re looking for right now.”