As President Donald Trump continues to rail against the idea of nationwide vote-by-mail, a Brigham Young University researcher says there is no evidence that the voting method poses an advantage or disadvantage to either political party.
In a paper published on Wednesday in the academic journal Science Advances, BYU political science professor Michael Barber and University of Virginia public policy professor John Holbein analyzed county-level data over the past three decades and 40 million voting records from Washington and Utah, two states “that have conducted a staggered rollout of mandatory vote-by-mail.”
“Recently, mandatory vote-by-mail has received a great deal of attention as a means of administering elections in the United States,” wrote Barber and Holbein. “However, policy-makers disagree on the merits of this approach.”
Looking at voting records in Utah and Washington, as well as county-level data from Colorado, Oregon, Nebraska and California, Barber and Holbein conclude that mandatory vote-by-mail “modestly increases turnout but has no effect on who wins elections.”
“Mandatory VBM increases turnout modestly in general elections but does not substantively advantage either political party,” the authors wrote. “These results are vitally important given contemporary debates at local, state, and federal levels over the merits of this mode of administering elections.”
The authors add that in a presidential election “where citizens have to choose between minimizing the chances that they contract or spread COVID-19 and fulfilling their civic duty to vote, levels of voter participation could likely stagnate, decline, and/or become more unequal than they already are.”
“Given this possibility, allowing citizens to cast their ballots from the safety of their own homes is a viable approach to ensuring that elections continue despite the deadly COVID-19,” they wrote. “In short, mandatory VBM preserves public safety while also maintaining the current balance of power between the two dominant political parties. VBM preserves both public health and the integrity of elections.”
Barber said the results call into question the widespread public perception that vote-by-mail disproportionately benefits Democrats.
“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,” the political scientist said in a press release. “It turns out not to be the case.”
“We ran dozens of analyses and every single time we found no impact in partisan vote shares,” he continued. “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.”
The BYU professor added that he sees nationwide vote-by-mail as “one way we can have a fair and secure election in 2020 without putting voters at significant health risks.”
“We have elections in all sorts of really crazy circumstances — we even had presidential elections in the middle of the Civil War,” he said. “I would hope that people see this as a public policy that could really benefit our country right now.”
The full paper, titled “The participatory and partisan impacts of mandatory vote-by-mail,” can be accessed online at http://advances.sciencemag.org.