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Power of Mailed-Out Ballots Clear in May Primaries

Oregon, a model vote-at-home state, has experienced the greatest overall turnout thus far at 37%, and turnout in Nebraska’s 11 full vote-at-home counties was more than 20 percentage points higher on average than the state’s total turnout.

With over a quarter of the 2022 primaries in the books, one trend is unmistakable: states and jurisdictions that automatically mail ballots to their voters experience higher turnout than states with more restrictive mail-ballot access.  

Oregon, with its full “vote at home” model in which all active registered voters are mailed their ballots automatically for every election, shows the highest turnout of any state to date at 37.1%. This is more than 10% higher than the average for the remaining 12 states that have held primaries to date. 

Even more striking is turnout in the Democratic and Republican primaries. Oregon is a “closed primary” state, meaning only Republicans and Democrats can participate in their respective party elections. Turnout currently stands at about 53% for Republicans and 50% for Democrats. Those rates are more than double the total turnout in many states where all voters were eligible to participate. 

“When ballots are placed directly in the hands of voters, they turn out,” said Lori Augino, executive director for National Vote at Home Institute and former Washington state elections director. “Automatically mailing a ballot to voters several weeks before the election gives them the time and convenience they need to vote, without having to overcome unnecessary barriers like requesting a mail ballot or obtaining a witness or notary signature.” 

Comparing other major “closed” primaries, the most relevant may be Pennsylvania, with several scorching statewide races in play, including the gubernatorial and Senate contests. Total turnout was well below Oregon’s, coming in at 30%, and party-specific turnout was also far less with about 39% for Republicans and 32% for Democrats. 

About 5% behind Oregon’s overall turnout and holding the second-highest primary turnout to date is Nebraska, an open-primary state with 11 counties using the vote-at-home model in which every active registered voter is automatically mailed a ballot. Those counties came in at an average 55% turnout, more than 20 percentage points higher than the statewide total. 

StateMailed-out ballot policyClosed or Open primaryTotal 2022 primary turnoutRepublican Party turnoutDemocratic Party turnout
OregonVote-at-home (VAH)Closed37%53%50%
PennsylvaniaNo-excuse absenteeClosed30%39%32%
Nebraska*No-excuse absenteeOpen33%40%29%
*NE 11 VAH counties onlyVote-at-home (VAH)Open 55%55%

Sources: Secretaries of state websites and published media reports.

Almost a third of the states had lower than 20% turnout. 

All except North Carolina require voters to have an excuse to obtain a mailed-out ballot, and North Carolina’s witness/notary requirements create an additional obstacle for people to vote using mail ballots. 

StateMailed-out ballot policyTotal 2022 primary turnout
IndianaExcuse required14.0%
TexasExcuse required 19.0%
KentuckyExcuse required 19.0%
North CarolinaNo-excuse absentee, but requires two witnesses or a notary 19.7%

Sources: Secretaries of state websites and published media reports.

“The key difference between these states and those with greater turnout are their policies on access to mailed-out ballots,” said Augino. “Unfortunately, these states impose additional barriers to voters in obtaining mail ballots, which makes voting less convenient and ultimately discourages participation.”

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