December 4, 2008
Research finds large increase in turnout with vote-by-mail system
ATLANTA — With the crowded lines for advance voting making news in the 2008 presidential election, it’s evident that voters are enthusiastic about reforms that make civic participation more convenient.
In 2000, Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to hold elections exclusively by mail. According to research conducted by Georgia State political science Assistant Professor Sean Richey, Oregon’s vote-by-mail reform has led to a 10 percentage point increase in turnout for both midterm and presidential elections.
“That’s a fairly large increase,” he said. “When you think that even in the most exciting elections, such as the one we just had, turnout only increased by 8 percentage points, that’s a pretty massive effect.”
In Oregon, every registered voter is mailed a ballot, which he or she then completes and mails back or turns in at a ballot drop-off location. In addition to being convenient for voters, the move has also saved the state about $3 million per election.
“Polling places are actually quite expensive. People don’t think of the administration of elections, but it’s quite costly to hire workers and monitoring and that kind of thing,” Richey said.
“This is a much more efficient system, and what you really hear about is obviously that it improves turnout and democratic participation, but a nice sub-effect is that it’s actually inexpensive.”
Another reason voters find the vote-by-mail system attractive is the added time it gives to research the issues. In a state such as Oregon, which typically features many ballot initiatives, this is especially important to voters, Richey said.
“In the polling place, it’s difficult to give 25 questions a lot of detailed consideration,” he said. “But if you’re mailed a ballot, you can go on the Internet, you can discuss it with friends and family, you can ask knowledgeable people that you know. This allows you to have much more deliberative, reasoned choices for the questions. And that’s one of the things people find most positive.”
With Oregon’s increased voter turnout and the popularity of vote-by-mail among the state’s residents, other states could turn to a similar voting system, Richey said.
“If a neighboring state has tried an innovative new reform and they try it for 10 or 15 years and it is successful, it’s much easier for you to adopt it,” he said.
“Oregon has about 2 million voters and they’ve done three presidential elections, two midterm elections and all the sub and county elections in between by this vote-by-mail system, so there’s lots of data on it. There’s very little fraud, there’s been no reports of abuse of the system, and so it makes it much easier for a state like Washington or even Colorado, two of the states considering it, to choose it.”