Voting by mail — and only by mail — has become an option in the United States. Will it spread? According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, all states will mail an absentee ballot to voters who request one. While 20 states require a reason, 27 states permit “no-excuse” absentee voting. And three states now use mail-only voting. Oregon’s Ballot Measure 60 kicked off in 1998, making Oregon the first state to conduct its elections exclusively by mail. In 2011, Washington’s legislature moved the state to an entirely vote-by-mail system. Colorado joined in during the 2014 general election. In 2015, California launched a limited all-mail pilot as a test run. Lawmakers will use that pilot to learn how such an election would work in California. Supporters hope that voting by mail means more citizens will vote. Is it so? Generally, the answer is both “no” and “yes,” but with important qualifications.
Here’s how voting by mail works. For these elections, all registered voters automatically receive a ballot in the mail. The voter marks the ballot, puts it into a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior of the mailing envelope and returns the package via mail. Ballots are mailed out well ahead of Election Day, typically about a month in advance. Ballots must be postmarked or returned on Election Day.
by 10 percentage points. However, since then, scholars have been unable to reproduce those results. Apparently that boost to Oregon’s turnout grew from a “novelty effect” and recurred only in special elections.
In Washington, researchers found that switching to all-mail elections increased overall participation by about three percentage points in presidential and midterm elections. In the California pilot, after the Nov. 3 elections, the San Mateo County elections office received 105,325 ballots out of the approximately 353,000 that were mailed. That’s 29.5 percent voter turnout, or 4.1 percent more than a similar off-year polling place election in 2013, when 25.4 percent of registered voters cast their ballots.