Voter turnout can often determine election outcomes. What influences voter turnout? Certainly, what’s on the ballot, the effectiveness of get-out-the-vote drives and how easy and convenient it is to vote.
State election law has no influence on what appears on ballots or on GOTV campaigns. But it has a lot to do with how easy/hard and convenient/inconvenient it is to vote.
Oregon is among the pioneers in vote-by-mail – or what some now call vote-at-home. Oregon adopted vote-by-mail in all federal, state and local elections to spur larger turnouts starting in the 2000 election. Data suggests it has succeeded on that score. Oregon has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the nation.
Two editors of Washington Monthly, which has touted broader use of vote-at-home, commissioned a study to assess the comparative turnout of Colorado’s 2014 general election. This was a midterm election, which typically sees depressed voter turnout, and it was Colorado’s first experience with vote-at-home.
“Analysis of voter turnout in the 2014 midterm election in Colorado shows low-propensity voters, including young voters, significantly over-performed their predicted turnout levels,” the study concluded. Overall turnout was 70 percent of the state’s 2.8 million active registered voters.
Oregon’s turnout for the same general election in 2014 was slightly less than 71 percent, based on data from the Secretary of State’s office. Of interest, almost 449,000 ballots were dropped off on election day, which was less than a third of the total votes cast by Oregonians. More than 105,000 votes were received by county election offices on October 27, a week before election day. Nearly 400,000 ballots were received on the two days preceding election day.
A fair interpretation of those 2014 election numbers is that Oregonians voted when they were ready and either mailed in their ballots or, if they waited until close to the election, dropped off their ballots at county election offices or official drop-off boxes.
Data also shows that vote-by-mail can’t compensate for voter disinterest or elections without high-profile candidate races or emotionally charged ballot measures. The January 23 Oregon special election, with a single ballot measure on the ballot, drew only a 40.3 percent voter turnout. About one-third of total ballots cast were handed in on the day before and day of the election, which reflected voters waiting to hear last-minute arguments and an aggressive GOTV campaign mounted by supporters of Measure 101.
The hotly contested US Senate special election in Alabama, won in an upset by Democrat Doug Jones, also attracted about the same overall 40 percent voter turnout. However, political observers say Jones won because of an unusually high turnout by African-American voters. Exit polls showed there were proportionately more black voters and they heavily favored Jones.
Gilad Edelman and Paul Glastris of Washington Monthly say Democrats should be “salivating” and pushing hard for vote-by-mail in every state to raise voter participation by minorities, the poor and young adults, which tend to vote for Democrats. However, they say Republicans also should be open to vote-by-mail to prevent extreme candidates from either party from dominating low-turnout elections, as Roy Moore did in the GOP primary in Alabama. The authors note that in Colorado’s first vote-at-home election in 2014, Coloradans turned out incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall.
It seems like promoting higher voter participation would be a political no-brainer. But in our polarized times, there is as much or more effort being put into voter suppression measures. Concerns tend to center not on how many people vote, but on who votes. Political conservatives, for example, attribute Democratic support for more liberal immigration laws as a way to boost the number of Democrat-leaning voters.
The Colorado study Edelman and Glastris point to indicates people with no party affiliation and between the ages of 40 and 50 also out-performed voter turnout predictions.
“Vote-at-home offers tangible benefits no matter what your party affiliation is,” they say, “because it relies on old-fashioned pen and paper, it can’t be hacked. While ballots are counted by machine, those machines don’t need to be connected to the Internet, and a paper trail is there for a recount.”
They add, “Since 2000, tens of millions of mailed-out ballots have been cast in Oregon, Washington and Colorado, without a hint of serious fraud or other mischief. And counties stand to save millions of dollars per election rather than paying for poll workers and voting machines or renting voting locations, money that can be used to provide other essential services.”