Vote-by-Mail Policy and the 2020 Presidential Election

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%.

The Secret Success of Mailed-out Ballot Access Policies Nationwide

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.

Signature Verification and Mail Ballots: Guaranteeing Access While Preserving Integrity

When voters cast ballots by mail, election officials need a method to verify their identity to ensure the integrity of the election. In many states, including California, county officials use signature verification, a process by which election officials compare the signature on a vote-by-mail (VBM) ballot return ID envelope to the signatures in a voter’s registration file. If the signatures are sufficiently similar, the ballot is accepted and counted—if not, it is set aside for election officials to review further and attempt to verify the voter’s identity.

California has been a leader among states in expanding options and facilitating vote-by-mail. With statewide implementation of the Voter’s Choice Act (SB 450) slated for 2022, all California voters will be given the option to vote at home and send their ballot in by mail. Increased adoption of this practice has brought state and national attention to all aspects of the vote-by-mail process, including signature verification. Small variations in these practices can decide close races.

The purpose of this study is to understand how California counties manage two related electoral processes: (1) verifying signatures on vote-by-mail ballot return ID envelopes and (2) notifying voters whose signatures were rejected and providing a process to allow voters to remedy this rejection. The latter process encompasses requirements mandated by recent California legislation entitled the Every Vote Counts Act (EVCA), SB 759.

We hope making this information accessible to election officials and the general public will raise awareness of how vote-by-mail ballots are processed in California. We also hope that, as a result, policymakers in California and elsewhere will gain a better understanding of how counties are performing these key electoral functions. Based on this study’s findings, we provide a set of recommendations directed to county election officials, the California Secretary of State’s Office, and to voters themselves to improve these processes and to ensure that, indeed, every vote is counted.

This report is the product of both quantitative analysis and qualitative interviews. To assess the effects of different signature verification processes on vote-by-mail rejection rates, we gathered and analyzed historical voting data for all California counties from 2004 through 2018 from the Election Administration and Voter Survey (EAVS). The bulk of our study, however, grows out of interviews with several national election administration experts and with election officials from thirty-three of California’s fifty-eight counties. While county procedures are identified, quotes are not attributed to individual county officials to preserve confidentiality. Together, the 33 California counties we surveyed represent over 32 million people—more than 80% of the state’s population.

VAH – What it is, best practices, and lessons learned

This purpose of this document is to give citizens, civic organizations, policy advocates, and local, state, federal, and tribal government officials (including election administrators) important facts and background about what we refer to as “Vote at Home – VAH” election systems (also often called “All Vote by Mail” elections).

MIT Demographics on Voting by Mail

The tables here address the following questions:

Who voted by mail in the 2016 presidential election, by salient demographics (i.e., age, race, education, income, partisanship)?

Who supports expanded voting by mail?

How do people return mail ballots?

The Colorado Voting Experience

Imagine the perfect voting experience. You drop by the polling place on the way to work or school. The line is moving quickly, so it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to get to the check-in desk. Once there, your registration is rapidly verified, and you’re handed a ballt by a friendly face. No one hassles you; no one unfairly questions your eligibility. You step aside to a private booth, fill out the form, and have it easily scanned. You get a receipt — and the cherished “I voted” sticker. The whole transaction takes about five or 10 minutes. Upon leaving the site, you not only experience that frisson that reminds you you’re a part of something bigger — civic pride — but also leave there in time to drop off the kids at school and make it to work on time.

Or maybe you skip the drive altogether and mail in your completed ballot after having received it in the mail. Or you thought about your choices for months but voted and returned your ballot in a matter of minutes on Election Day. In many ways, it’s a day like any other: you carry on with your duties as you otherwise would. In another way, though, it’s a special and unique experience; you participated in an act that for many was hard-fought and hard- won, that is a guaranteed right to you as a citizen, and that helps direct the course of the nation. You voted. And, because of that, you got to be one of the country’s critical decision-makers.

It may not yet be the norm, but in Colorado, and in states with more in-person and at-home voting options that resemble the above processes, a comprehensive elections model ensures an experience that benefits both voter and administrator alike. And it boosts turnout.

Changing the Way People Vote? An Examination of the Voter Choice Act and Vote Center Implementation in California

This study evaluated California’s Voters Choice Act and the effects on turnout and voting methods.

Abstract: “In 2018, California implemented a series of voting reforms under the new Voters Choice Act. Counties were allowed to opt in to the program rather than be required by law. Five counties, Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento and San Mateo, implemented the changes for the 2018 primary and general elections. This paper examines the effects from the adoption of the Voter Choice Act in 2018 in terms of turnout and voting methods, with a focus on the shift toward vote by mail. The goal of this study is to better understand who is voting when and how in the revamped California election environment. Results show that when given multiple convenience options such as vote by mail and vote centers with early voting hours, voters overwhelmingly choose to vote by mail. Results also suggest than when voters change their behavior in a reform environment, the majority move from in person voting to vote by mail rather than vice versa.”

Catalist Report 2018 Absentee by State by Age

Catalist and NVAHI have discussed the 2018 absentee and early vote totals and the impact of age. Below, we present the absentee and early vote (AVEV) distribution within the AVEV states in 2018, by age. The AVEV vote does not necessarily represent the general election electorate in each state – states vary in their adoption, and the regulations governing who can legally vote early or absentee – but in many states the AVEV vote represents a significant portion of the total 2018 vote.