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No, vote by mail elections do not increase voter turnout

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

Citizens across the Mountain States and the nation are busy casting ballots for the 2022 general election. Some have already voted by mail. Others will head to the polls on Tuesday.

Perhaps the biggest misconception about elections is that voter turnout increases and is automatically higher in states that perform elections by mail.

As the National Conference of State Legislatures points out, only eight states conduct their elections entirely by mail. They include California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington

Idaho allows for some small jurisdictions (fewer than 140 registered voters) to hold mail-only elections, but the state itself has in-person and absentee balloting. Montana is the same – while you can request a ballot to vote absentee, most voters cast ballots in person.

A vote by mail system is very different than a system which allows for absentee ballots.

Proponents of voting entirely by mail have repeatedly said it would increase voter turnout and allow for easier access to democracy.

In the 2020 general election, vote by mail was used extensively due to the COVID pandemic. But research from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research shows vote by mail had little effect on turnout.

Most people who voted by mail most likely would have voted in person had voting by mail not been an option. In fact, turnout rose by a similar amount in states that didn’t even allow no-excuse absentee voting — the most common form of mail-in balloting and the one the researchers study — in 2020.

Washington state was one of the first states to switch to a complete vote-by-mail system. Yet turnout in many elections remains low. In fact, this year Washington’s primary election in August saw voter turnout of less than 25%.

Election statistics from Washington tell a story of virtually no impact on the state’s turnout as a result of mail-in voting. In 2019, Washington state policymakers even added postage to ballots, saying they “increased democracy.” And still, voter turnout in 2020 was actually slightly lower than it was in 2008 - the last presidential election prior to the state’s vote by mail change.

Voter turnout in Idaho and Montana, meantime, was higher in the 2020 general election than in the 2016, 2012 and 2008 presidential election years.

Vote by mail may be a good option for some voters, but the research shows little evidence it increases voter turnout. Policymakers supporting vote by mail should be honest about both the positives and negatives.

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