Red wave? Blue wave? No. Paper Wave!

By National Vote at Home Institute

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Third, roughly a dozen “Excuse Required” states still cling to an outdated notion that voters should be treated as truant schoolchildren, needing a note from a parent or doctor to have their ballot mailed to them.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. 

For example:

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? 

Strong vote-by-mail policies correspond with higher turnout in 2022 primaries

With primaries in the books for more than half of the states, one unmistakable trend has emerged — states offering easy access to mail-in ballots are experiencing significantly greater turnout than their more restrictive counterparts. Average turnout in full vote-at-home states — California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah — in which voters are automatically mailed ballots for every election is 30%. Combine that with states where a significant voting cohort are voting absentee, and you have as much as a 10-point turnout lift when compared to states with smaller vote-by-mail populations. Meanwhile, states that require their voters to apply for a mail-in ballot for every election or to have an excuse to vote absentee are averaging 23% and 18% respectively.    

These figures on their own are unimpressive. It has long been a disappointing trend in U.S. elections that turnout surges during presidential elections then trails off in primaries and other contests, often at embarrassingly low rates. We should strive to boost turnout in non-presidential elections as more localized races have a greater bearing on citizens’ day-to-day lives. 

However, the fact that states with more expansive vote-by-mail policies are trending as high as 10 percentage points on average when compared to states with more restrictive policies should be reason for lawmakers to consider removing barriers to accessing mailed-out ballots. 

In just this past month, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Delaware have all enacted laws to eliminate the requirement that voters have an excuse to vote by mail. These are three states with long traditions of going to the polls with the exception of temporary pandemic-era policies that made it easier for their electorate to obtain mailed-out ballots, during which they experienced record turnout compared to previous presidential elections. Their recent move to go “no excuse for all” reduces the portion of the U.S. electorate that needs an excuse to vote absentee to only 13.4% — and the remaining 14 states that still require a justification should follow suit. 

Applause for these major milestones has been tentative, however. Republicans have filed a lawsuit against Massachusetts’ VOTES Act, which was recently signed into law by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, questioning its constitutionality. Meanwhile Republicans in Rhode Island and Delaware have also hinted at legal action against their respective vote-by-mail laws. Among criticisms of Massachusetts’ new law, 6th Congressional District Candidate Bob May said the motivation behind its passage is to give a boost to Democratic incumbents. 

Claims that vote-by-mail election outcomes benefit Democratic candidates are nothing more than fallacies fueled by misinformation. Research conducted at Stanford University found no partisan lean when examining election outcomes in California, Washington, and Utah. Plus, Massachusetts has long been controlled by a Democratic majority, under far less mail-in-voting-friendly circumstances. 

Montana, where nearly 90% of its voters cast vote-by-mail ballots, has the highest turnout to date for the 2022 primaries at 39%. 

Even in Nebraska, another Republican stronghold, the 11 mostly rural counties that have opted into a full vote-at-home model are seeing the advantage of automatically mailing ballots to their voters. Turnout in those counties averaged 55% in their May 10 primary, more than 20% higher than the remainder of the state. Similarly, North Dakota’s 42 vote-by-mail counties are averaging greater than 6% higher than its 11 polling-place counties.

And in Oregon’s May 17 closed primary, meaning only Republicans and Democrats could participate in their respective party elections, turnout for both parties exceeded 50%. Although Oregon, like Massachusetts, has a strong Democratic majority, both parties benefited from the ease and convenience of voting by mail. 

Bottom line: Vote-at-home elections ensure equitable access for all; they do not favor one party or voting group. 

Lawmakers of all political persuasions should be pursuing policies proven to boost turnout across demographics. A recent study of mail-ballot use and voter participation found that turnout increased an average of 5.6% during the 2020 presidential election in states that mailed a ballot to every registered voter. The effects of mail-ballot delivery were even greater in jurisdictions with historically low mail-ballot usage, boosting turnout by as much as 8%. Even in the primary elections that have taken place so far this year, states with strong vote-at-home models are clearly outperforming less advanced states. 

It’s high time lawmakers put aside conspiracy theories and partisan quibbling and enact reforms proven to drive participation in our democracy from all corners of our country. 


Lori Augino is the executive director of National Vote at Home Institute, a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to improved access to and confidence in vote-at-home election systems. She previously served as the Washington State Elections Director from 2013-2021 and the 2020-2021 president of the National Association of State Election Directors.


Election officials have multiple safeguards in place to keep voting secure

The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued an advisory Friday about vulnerabilities affecting versions of Dominion Voting Systems Democracy Suite ImageCast X, an in-person voting system used in local jurisdictions across the country. Yes, that Dominion Voting Systems that has been a target of people pushing false stolen-election narratives. Before sounding the alarm on these systems, however, it’s important to remember the following: 

First, CISA said there is no evidence that the election software flaws have been exploited to change any election results. Rather, the advisory issued today encourages officials to mitigate any identified vulnerabilities and offers suggestions for minimizing risk. In fact, in a statement to The Associated Press, CISA Executive Director Brandon Wales said “states’ standard security procedures would detect exploitation of these vulnerabilities and in many cases would prevent attempts entirely.” 

Second, election officials employ myriad checks and balances, tests, and verifications before, during and after every election that — together — protect the integrity of the voting process and its underlying systems. 

Every state and local election official has their own protocols and best practices to maintain the chain of custody for election materials and detect anomalies. These controls include: 

  • voter verification at the time of registration as well as when voters request absentee ballots; 
  • pre-election Logic and Accuracy testing to ensure ballot tabulation equipment is working properly; 
  • physical security measures, like 24/7 surveillance, witness forms elections workers must sign so officials have an auditable log of when materials and equipment were accessed and changed hands, and tamper-evident locks and seals; 
  • reconciliation reports that provide a daily accounting of mail ballots received; and
  • post-election audits that confirm the reported results. 

These measures are enhanced by cyber security protections from IT departments and federal intelligence agencies that are continuously improving their security posture in the face of threats from bad actors. 

With numerous safeguards in place, voters should be confident in their election system and its outcomes.  

Finally, expanding access to mail ballots may actually improve security, despite persistent misinformation and disinformation to the contrary. Vote-by-mail systems also benefit from the protections U.S. Postal Inspectors provide in ensuring the integrity of the U.S. Postal Service and its ability to deliver democracy to voters across the country. 

In seven states, every voter automatically receives a paper ballot by mail for every election, which they mark by hand and return by mail, official drop box, or in person to their elections office. And in 27 more states, voters do not need an excuse to obtain a mail ballot. 

Vote-by-mail is secure and still preserves accessible options for voters with disabilities to use assistive voting devices. Plus, it’s a transparent process with a verifiable paper trail that instills confidence in voters — especially when ballot tracking coupled with robust curing programs are in place that allow officials to investigate missing or unmatched signatures and offer voters the opportunity to remedy errors. More states and local jurisdictions should consider embracing expanded mail-ballot access with signature curing as a proven, secure voting option.


Lori Augino is the executive director of National Vote at Home Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to access to and confidence in voting by mail. Previously, she served as the president for the National Association of State Election Directors from 2020 to 2021 and as the state elections director under former Republican Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman.   

Ballot tracking can improve rejection-rate disparities

Originally published in The Seattle Times

As disinformation about the 2020 election and the security of vote-at-home elections persists, instilling public confidence is critical. Washington voters have every reason to be confident in their election system, and every reason to continue to improve it.

Washington is one of only eight states that automatically sends a ballot to their voters for every election, it routinely boasts some of the nation’s highest turnout, and it was the only state in 2020 to receive a perfect score from Brookings Institute for its preparedness for voting during a pandemic. Not to mention the state has been on the cutting edge of election innovations, from being one of the first states to adopt mail-in balloting to implementing same-day and automatic voter registration and the Future Voter program.

As the pandemic began to take shape in 2020, states and local jurisdictions from across the country looked to Washington state’s election officials for expertise and advice for ramping up their mail-ballot programs in the midst of a global health crisis. In fact, National Vote at Home Institute regards Washington as a model state for vote-at-home (or vote-by-mail) elections systems. Thanks to its mail-ballot accessibility and system resilience, the state in 2020 saw its highest turnout on record for a statewide primary in more than a half-century and near-record turnout in the general election.

However, a recent performance audit by the Washington State Auditor’s Office found that during the 2020 general election, the ballots of young voters, male voters and voters of color were more likely to be rejected due to voter-signature issues than other racial and demographic groups. Troublingly, the ballot rejection rate for Black voters was 2.49%, 1.59% for Native Americans, 1.57% for Hispanics, 1.24% for Asian/Pacific Islanders and 0.63% for white voters. And voters under the age of 26 accounted for more than 30% of rejected ballots.

The overall rejection rate was less than 1%, and the audit found no evidence of bias in decisions to accept or reject ballots. Nonetheless, state and local election officials agree the disparities warrant further examination. In fact, the Office of the Secretary of State requested that the state Legislature fund a study through the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance to evaluate the audit’s recommendations.

The audit outlined several innovations election officials could adopt to increase the chances of curing challenged ballots, and among the innovative practices recommended was robust ballot tracking.

Today, Washington voters can check the status of their ballot by logging in to This lookup tool provides voters an opportunity to see when their ballot is on its way to them, when it has been received by their county elections office and whether it has been accepted or challenged (and ultimately, rejected). With end-to-end ballot tracking, however, voters are proactively notified via email and/or text by their local elections office when their ballot is out for delivery, when it has arrived at their home, when it has been received by the election office and when it has been accepted. If the ballot is not accepted, the ballot tracking service can quickly relay instructions to voters on how to cure their ballot so it may be accepted and counted. The system can even be configured to alert voters of upcoming elections, deadlines and other important voting information.

To eliminate voting disparities and stay ahead of the curve, the Washington Office of the Secretary of State is considering this innovation, which is currently used in three of the nation’s eight vote-at-home states as well as in many jurisdictions across the U.S. It’s convenient, transparent and accessible, much like tracking an online order. Plus, participating in ballot tracking programs has been shown to boost turnout by as much as 20%.

Before the Secretary of State’s Office could implement ballot tracking, migrating each of Washington’s 39 county election offices to VoteWA, the state’s voter registration and election management system launched in 2019, was crucial. With VoteWA now well-established, the secretary’s office is poised to develop an end-to-end ballot tracking system to serve voters statewide.

Washington state is home to some of the most accessible and secure elections in the country. Voting at home remains a time-tested, fair way to improve access and increase turnout across demographics. Implementing some of the recommendations from the audit, including robust ballot tracking, would serve to further enhance voters’ experience with and confidence in their elections system, and could turn the tide on some of the disparities in ballot-rejection rates.


Pat McCarthy is the Washington state auditor.

Steve Hobbs is Washington’s Secretary of State.

Lori Augino is the executive director for the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit dedicated to expanding vote by mail.