New Study Shows Benefits of Voting by Mail

May 5, 2020 | 10:05 am
Chris Phan/Wikimedia Commons
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

The latest COVID-19 death rate estimates suggest that the pandemic will continue to be a lethal threat well into the summer. And that means a lot of uncertainty between now and the November general election, now just under 6 months away. As we think about how to manage this crisis, a timely new study by political scientists Adam Bonica, ​Jacob M. Grumbach​, Charlotte Hill​ and Hakeem Jefferson demonstrates positive effects on voter turnout from Colorado’s approach to voting: universal vote-by-mail.

Colorado’s voting system is regularly touted as among the country’s best-performing by election experts. The study uses voter file data to compare the types of registered voters who were more likely to turnout after vote-by-mail expansion was implemented. Overall, they estimate a turnout increase rate of 9.4 percentage points.

Among the authors’ most important findings: after Colorado adopted vote-by-mail and other reforms, the turnout boost was more pronounced among groups who are traditionally less likely to turnout: younger people, people of color, lower-income citizens, and those with less education.

The authors acknowledge that Colorado’s system includes a number of reform elements, and that these positive effects can’t be attributed to vote-by-mail alone:

“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.)”

States vary greatly in their capacity to hold safe and secure elections in November, and many organizations have urged for states to enact and Congress to support reforms to match Colorado’s capacity (and beyond): automatic and same day voter registration; vote-by-mail with secure and sanitary drop-off locations; and secure ballot tracking and verification procedures to ensure that all eligible voters, and only eligible voters, have an equal opportunity to have their voice heard. And while opponents of vote-by-mail fearmonger about fraud, my colleagues and I recently issued a brief, debunking myths about vote-by-mail and fraud.

As my CSD colleague Fernando Tormos-Aponte and I recently pointed out, these reforms don’t implement themselves, but rely on the organization and hard work of activists and advocates who have also had to adapt to the new COVID-19 environment. You can do your part, in your state and beyond, by signing up to build a healthier democracy in which everybody has the opportunity to cast a safe and secure vote this November.