Much has been written about the success of temporary policies states put in place for mailed-out ballot access during the 2020 election due to the pandemic. The resulting use of those ballots, and the percentage of the popular vote they represented was indeed stunning. But an untold story, until now, is how rapidly voters across the country have had their access to mailed-out ballots improved on a permanent policy basis. Here are some of the details that drive the accompanying graphic.
The Hill – A new study makes a case for at-home voting by drawing on a unique civic experiment: a town in rural Nebraska where half of the electorate chose to vote by mail in 2020, while the other half went to the polls.
Emerson, Neb., is a classic corn-belt farm town, with roughly 900 citizens and 500 voters. The western half of Emerson lies in Dixon County. Two other counties split the eastern half.
The town’s layout made it a perfect laboratory to test the merits of mail-in balloting. Dixon County conducted the 2020 election entirely by mail. The other counties did not.
The National Vote at Home Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for at-home balloting, commissioned a study. What it found: In the fall 2020 election, 78 percent of Emerson voters turned out in the western half of town, where everyone voted by mail. In the eastern half, where most people went to the polls, turnout stalled at 66 percent.
LA Times – For a brief time in 2020, it seemed as though the vote-by-mail movement was having a bipartisan moment.
Red and blue states that had offered the option only to a relatively small number of residents were suddenly scrambling to expand mail voting to as many people as possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at polling places. Voting rights advocates saw it as a chance to educate lawmakers and voters about the long-term benefits of moving away from casting ballots in person.
Two years later, access to mail voting looks radically different from state to state, mirroring a broad partisan divide in voting policies.
The Fulcrum – Every state that relies heavily on voting by mail outperformed the national median during the 2022 primaries – but none of them led in turnout this year. That distinction went to Wyoming, where Rep. Liz Cheney ran in a statewide nominating contest, and Kansas, which put an abortion measure on the primary ballot.
But the seven states that do run vote-by-mail primaries were all in the top 20 – including four of the top seven – according to data collected by the National Vote at Home Institute.
Washington Monthly – Emerson, Nebraska, is a farming town of 900 in the state’s sparse northeast expanse. Its Republican-leaning, nearly all-white population makes Emerson not unlike dozens of other rural communities in the state. It is unique, however, for being the only town in the state divided between three counties: Dixon County, which covers the western half of Emerson; and Dakota and Thurston Counties, which make up the northeastern and southeastern quadrants of the town, respectively.
Every two years, political pundits sift through party primary election results, speculating as to whether a red wave or a blue wave is coming ashore in November. With the 2022 primary season now over, a far more important wave is staring us right in the face.
The Paper Wave.
This Paper Wave involves mailed-out ballots – and specifically, the dramatic differences in voter turnout that occurred under the three very different policy frameworks U.S. states currently use.
First, in primarily “Vote at Home” (VAH) states, ballots are automatically mailed to most or all active registered voters.
Second, there are the nation’s “No Excuse” states, where mailed-out ballots are available to any voter who requests one.
Third, roughly a dozen “Excuse Required” states still cling to an outdated notion that voters should be treated as truant schoolchildren, needing a note from a parent or doctor to have their ballot mailed to them.
The 2022 “Paper Wave” is dramatically captured by the wide variance in 2022 primary election voter turnout rates, as calculated by NVAHI based on state-reported vote totals and registered voter counts.
- Vote at Home states’ turnout average: 35%
- No Excuse states’ turnout average: 26%
- Excuse Required states’ turnout average: 19%
Primary contests can certainly vary state-to-state in terms of their national importance and local intensity. For example, 2022’s two highest turnout states were Wyoming with its “Liz Cheney referendum” election (63%); and Kansas with its abortion rights ballot measure (48%).
But absent these two contests, the “Top 10” list for primary election turnout included seven of the nation’s eight VAH states. Even relatively dull primaries in VAH states – e.g, Hawaii and Washington state, both at 40% — far exceeded turnout in states like Ohio (21%), Texas (19%) and New York (11%).
Meanwhile, seven of the bottom 10 states were “Excuse Required,” in which fewer than one in five registered voters participated.
The power of the Paper Wave is simply this: voters with a ballot in their hands vote at materially higher levels than those who must schlep to a physical polling place. And this phenomenon repeats even within No Excuse states that still require voters to apply for their mailed-out ballots.
In Florida, 42% of voters who received a mailed-out ballot returned them, compared to a 19% turnout rate among the remaining polling place voters. Among Maryland voters, the differential was three times that: 64% vs. 19%.
Michigan was more impressive still: an 84% return rate among mail-ballot voters versus 13%, a sixfold difference. Half of all votes cast in Michigan’s 2022 primary came from mailed-out ballots – compared to just 27% in the 2018 midterms.
Then there’s Nebraska, with its “one-of-a-kind” law that gives certain counties the legal authority to automatically mail ballots to all active registered voters. The 11 counties that chose this approach in 2022 had a 55% turnout — compared to the rest of the state at 34%.
One more side-by-side comparison is instructive. For 2022, both Massachusetts and Rhode Island moved to a “no excuse” policy for mail ballots. But Massachusetts’ new law also directed the secretary of state to mail a ballot application form to all registered voters.
Nearly 1 in 6 Massachusetts voters — just over 700,000 – signed up. And about 69% of them returned their primary ballots, versus a 14% turnout rate among remaining polling place voters.
Rhode Island legislators didn’t require mailing out applications – and under 3% of its voters requested mail ballots for its primary. Even so, 77% of those voters cast ballots, versus 17% of the remaining polling place voters.
To be sure, voters in No Excuse states who request a mailed-out ballot in advance are arguably “more motivated” to vote. But that hardly accounts in full for three times – much less six times – differences in turnout. Not to mention the notably high turnout in states where all voters automatically received such ballots, with no application required.
Now that the “Paper Wave” primary season of 2022 is behind us, an obvious question presents itself. How much more “hidden in plain sight” evidence is needed to recognize that when mail ballots are made far accessible – if not a “given” prior to every election – that the real winners are American voters and our democracy?