How Forced Mail Voting Affects Voter Turnout

Oh, how novel. Our elections officials just make stuff up. And Goldy faithfully repeats it. Again.

Last time, Goldy repeated Dwight "Diebold! Diebold! Diebold!" Pelz's nonsense that the reckless plan to completely overhaul our elections was merely an upgrade.

The time before that, Goldy spun a yarn about how forced mail voting yields earlier election results. Wrong, as I explained here and here.

This time, our Sec of State Sam Reed repeats the half truth that forced mail voting boosts voter turnout. Predictably, Goldy jumps with joy.

Debunking below the fold.

Apples & Oranges

Not all elections are created equal. Our election officials often compare apples to oranges, relying on our ignorance, hoping we don't spot the fallacy. Similarly, they'll use numbers from special and primary elections in their projections for general elections.

As Mark Twain said: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Briefly, here's the facts on forced mail voting:

  • DECREASES voter turnout for GENERAL elections by 2.6 - 2.9 percent. For King County, that's ~23,400 voters (900,000 x 2.6%).

  • Increases voter turnout for special elections and primaries by an average of 7.9 percent. For King County, that's ~37,130 voters (470,000 x 7.9%).

  • Voters using mail ballots are more likely to skip down ticket races, contrary to conventional wisdom.

Surprising, no?

These conclusions come from the academic paper "Will Vote-by-Mail Elections Increase Participation? Evidence from California Counties".

What's really clever about this study is the comparison of "demographic twins". These are precincts that are identical in all ways, except what kind of ballot they use: mail ballot vs poll site ballot.

Every other prior study (Curtis Gans, Dr. Priscilla Sidwell, etc.) compares turnout from year to year, before and after the implementation of forced mail voting. So there's no way to correct for current events (which may effect motivation and turnout).

Even so, the prior studies do not contradict the new findings. They had also concluded that forced mail voting boosts turnout for special and primary elections. (As for effect on turnout for general elections, the prior studies said that the data was inconclusive.)

5 Million Dollar Question

Forced mail voting both decreases turnout in generals and increases turnout in the others. So here's the question:

Is the tradeoff worth it?

Let's review:


  1. Higher turnout in special elections
  2. Easier to hide mistakes
  3. Centralizes control of our elections
  4. Enabled ballot chasing

(#2 and #3 benefit elections officials, not voters. #4 benefits the parties, not voters.)


  1. Lower turnout in general elections
  2. Eliminates the secret ballot
  3. Costs a lot more
  4. Very complex, hard to observe, hard to audit
  5. Disenfranchises voters
  6. Delayed election results

(#3 Is my assertion, I haven't proven this yet. Working on it. #5 is based on mail ballot summary reports.)


I've learned that every statement our elections officials make should be fact checked, second sourced, validated, understood in context, etc. before being accepted as truth.

In a recent comment, Ivan noted that I hadn't convinced him that forced mail voting is a bad idea. Completely fair. It's no secret that I oppose forced mail voting. But we decided to focus on the reckless plan to overhaul our elections. Now that the reckless plan is careening forward, it's time to pull back and reexamine how and why we got to this point, meaning shining a light on the evils of forced mail voting.

Speaking of which...

Gentry Lange's No Vote By Mail blog does a great job chronicling the problems nationally and internationally with forced mail voting. Time and again, where there's mail balloting, there's fraud.

[Update: Tried to clarify that the prior studies were inconclusive, in response to Ivan's comment.]

[Update: Changed title. "effect" is a noun, "affect" is a verb. D'oh!]

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I'm sorry, I just remembered/realized something.

About that average 7.9% increase in turnout for special and primary elections...

King County already got that boost. To force the rest of the voters to use mail ballot will REDUCE voter turnout for the GENERAL ELECTIONS without increasing turnout for the specials.

Let me explain...

The studies show that mail balloting benefits motivated voters, the partisans. They're the ones that vote most every election.

The motivated voters also typically return their ballots earlier. Which is why special and primary elections have a higher percentage of ballots available to tabulate on election day. (And why elections officials cite numbers from special elections when making their tortured rationalizations for buying more equipment.)

By now, any one who wants to use a mail ballot has already signed up.

King County currently has the best of both worlds, as far as turnout goes. Meaning we get the boost in turnout for the specials, without incurring the hit (decrease) that forced mail voting would bring for the generals.

Congratulations! Job well done.

Now please well enough alone.


Just because some mail balloting is good doesn't mean that more is better.

Voters are not just one big group of similar like minded people. Mail balloting helps one group (the motivated partisans) and hurts the another group (the infrequent "presidential" voters).

by zappini on Fri Aug 31, 2007 at 07:18:21 PM PST

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By your own admission the data are inconclusive.

So if the data are inconclusive, then all your "conclusions" amount to just what you accused Goldy of -- making stuff up.

You're simply not credible on this issue, Jason. The best I can say is that you're probably more credible than Gentry Lange.

Stick to the integrity of the ballots, where your work is more valuable. The polling place will go the way of the dodo bird soon.

If perception is reality, then the world must be flat and the sun must revolve around it.

by ivan on Fri Aug 31, 2007 at 09:30:19 PM PST

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Does anybody have data about
the influence of bribery, intimidation, and fraudulent voting on the "increaed" turnout?


by AlKolwicz on Sat Sep 01, 2007 at 06:31:26 PM PST

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so I won't comment on how all-vote-by-mail will affect vote turnout (if at all).

I will merely note that Dwight Pelz is apparently convinced that it will increase voter turnout.

In his widely distributed email of June 29th, 2007, he wrote:

There is a very critical situation facing Democrats in Washington state.  38 counties will conduct the election in 2008 by all-mail balloting.  All-mail balloting is expected to bring in 3-6 additional percentage points in
voting. 850,000 votes were cast for Governor in 2004.  If 6% additional votes were cast due to all mail balloting in 2008; and if Gregoire gets 66% and Rossi 33%; then Gregoire will realize a net gain of 2% or 17,000 votes.

by DWE on Sat Sep 01, 2007 at 07:57:17 PM PST

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I know some of us have heard the argument which goes "well we're all Democrats in King County, so why would Ron Sims (Larry Phillips, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny) be committing political suicide?" Of course, we're left to draw our own conclusions about that... but clearly the tortured conclusion we're expected to draw is that Democrats are doing this because it is a Good Thing (and the Rethugs Oppose It, therefore it is Also A Good Thing).

The Accurate Count prong is fairly accessible as a refutation:

  • Factions within a single political Party may put up their own candidates[1] and certainly if the public is going to vote on and pay for the election, then the public deserves an open, fair and honest count... not one possibly engineered by whichever faction controls the Elections Department and the voting equipment.
  • Ballot measures pertaining to issues such as taxation, annexation and the function of government itself may put We, The People in conflict with our elected officials and government itself. Certainly then We, The People have a Perfect Right to petition our government through the ballot box (what are the alternatives?) and again the only way to do that is with an open, fair and honest count.

What's interesting about the conclusion about fiddling with turnout between general and primary/special elections about going to all-mail voting is the light it shines on the practice of levys and other ballot measures being held in special/off elections... often with little or nothing else on the ballot:

  • Is this about giving offerors of ballot measures better control of whether they get motivated voters or general voters?

[1] The changeover to the partisan primary ballot got us the Sommers/Woldt contest... anything else? So much for the "increasing choice" argument for that one.

[2] Paul Allen even paid for his own election if I recall correctly.

by m3047 on Sun Sep 02, 2007 at 04:42:09 AM PST

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It is not uncommon for life-and-death decisions to be confidently made by professionals who have not evaluated the relevant body of evidence -- but who assert nevertheless that they have the proof and that those who argue with them are fools.  

It is not uncommon for experts to assert with so much authoritativeness and persuasiveness the truth of unsubstantiated claims that subsequently  become public policy at great cost to the public.

Abstinence education is one of these issues... I can think of others.

Working as a librarian in medical libraries I came to do quite a bit of reading on evidence-based medicine.  Medical decisions prior to the rise of this methodology in the 1970s (and continuing today of course, but less so) were made on the basis of tradition, individual and anecdotal experience, and the teachings/advice of mentors and textbooks (and pharmaceutical salespeople)  rather than on the best evidence.  Archie Cochrane, considered the founder of evidence-based medicine, observed that obstetrics was the branch of medicine in which practice was least informed by the evidence.  Obstetric interventions made on the basis of what amounted to religious belief in the efficacy of certain procedures resulted injury, death, and miserable birth-experiences with life-long impact for  countless babies and mothers.  

Certainly, this harm was not purposeful.  The practitioners' devotion to their patients' wellbeing was as heart-felt as their belief in the helpfulness of destructive practices.   In making decisions for their patients, they looked to cultural factors -- such as the unshakeable beliefs of their mentors and respected colleagues -- rather than to the evidence.  

I have nearly zero doubt that this is what has happened in the adoption of vote-by-mail.  For all the passionate -- and highly credible and authoritative-sounding assertions that it increases voter turnout -- I have seen no credible evidence.  

I taught workshops on this subject -- how to evaluate research articles when deciding what weight to give them.  So I think in these terms. And over the months while I have heard all kinds of claims made and have been told they are the absolute truth, I have not seen a single study or assertion on the voter participation enhancement powers of vote-by-mail that meets the criteria that I look for in authoritative research.  Kousser and Mullins in the article Zappini links to here comment on some of the flaws in this previous research.  

This study by Kousser and Mullins study is compelling and appears to me to have real credibility -- more than the research I've seen on the other side of this question.  To me, it is  persuasive.  The principal author is a well-regarded and well-published researcher in the field of political science.  The foundation and university involved are solid.  And the study compares like with like.  It looks very solid.

But it doesn't offer definitive proof-- nor do the authors claim it to.  It's simply one (apparently) well-designed study.  However it does authoritatively debunk the claims that vote-by-mail has been proven to increase voter turnout.  It hasn't been proven.  Simply, it hasn't.

So we're making a mad rush to 100% vote-by-mail in WA on the basis of hopes and dreams and political calculus rather than on evidence.  But we're being told it's the evidence and that we're fools not to believe it.  I've heard that before.  Zappini is right to bring this up again, as the supposed "proof" that we are better off 100% VBM in 08 is the reason given for this horrible decision to adopt all these other new procedures and equipment.

I'll be interested to see what the verdict is on this Kousser/Mullins article.  It's recent enough that I don't see any reviews of it when I Google it.  I haven't had a chance to check Social Science Citations -- which would list articles that cite it, if enough time has elapsed.   Generally,  a number of studies need to be done on a research question  -- and then their results reviewed and compared -- before a theory or conclusion gains general acceptance.  My prediction is that, in 10 years, we'll pretty much know that 100% VBM was another unsubstantiated fad.


by noemie maxwell on Sun Sep 02, 2007 at 09:01:51 PM PST

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