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Mail-in Ballots Didn't Win the Election for Biden

4 min read

In the 2020 election, we witnessed Yuge ™ Republican angst over mail-in ballots. They were an invitation to fraud, they said. There’s no way to know if the votes were legal, they said. It gave an unfair advantage to minorities and poor people, they said (as though that were a bad thing). Trump (who voted by mail-in ballot) hollered and screamed and stamped his feet that Democrats were using mail-in voting to steal the election from him. Ever since the election, GOP-controlled legislatures have working overtime (which for them means more than 10 hours a week) to create new barriers to mail-in voting.

It looks like they got it all wrong.

A new study just released (PDF) by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) looked at the data (an endangered but not yet obsolete technique) and found that mail-in voting made little difference. The key factor was voter interest.

The 2020 U.S. election saw high turnout, a huge increase in absentee voting, and brought united Democratic control at the federal level — yet, contrary to conventional wisdom, these facts do not imply that vote-by-mail increased turnout or had partisan effects. Using nationwide data, we find that states newly implementing no-excuse absentee voting for 2020 did not see larger increases in turnout than states that did not. Focusing on a natural experiment in Texas, we find that 65-year-olds turned out at nearly the same rate as 64-year-olds, even though 65-year-olds voted absentee at much higher rates than 64-year-olds because they could do so without having to provide an excuse. Being old enough to vote no-excuse absentee did not substantially increase Democratic turnout relative to Republican turnout, as the increase in Democratic absentee voting was o set by decreases in Democratic in-person voting. Together, the results suggest that no-excuse absentee voting mobilized relatively few voters and had at most a muted partisan effect despite the historic pandemic. Voter interest appears to be far more important in driving turnout.

In their conclusion, the authors directly address the narrative that has developed about mail-in voting:

A conventional wisdom about vote-by-mail in the 2020 election has already congealed and is setting the terms of this debate. By this account, the expansion of vote-by-mail triggered widespread adoption of absentee voting, which in turn massively increased turnout, which in turn helped the Democratic party. Both parties have accepted this narrative and are engaged in rhetorical combat on these terms.

The problem with this conventional wisdom is that it is based on a fallacy. It’s true that more people voted by mail than ever before in the 2020 election. It’s also true that turnout was extraordinarily high in 2020. And it’s also true that the Democratic party won the Presidency and the Senate and maintained control of the House. But these facts do not imply that voting by mail increased turnout or helped the Democrats.

This sentence sums it up:

In fact, as we’ve shown, the major effect of expanding absentee voting is to change how people vote, not whether they vote.

The researchers examined the effect of the pandemic on voting, and suggest that while it had some impact on voting by mail, it is not clear that it made any difference in the votes themselves.

Vote-by-mail is an important policy that voters seem to like using, and it may be a particularly important tool during the pandemic. Despite all that, and despite the extraordinary circumstances of the 2020 election, vote-by-mail’s effect on turnout and on partisan outcomes is very muted, just as research prior to the pandemic would have suggested.

What the report doesn’t address is the impact of cutting back mail-in voting with cutting back polling precincts; that is justifiably outside its scope. The report also did not address the issue of deliberate Post Office delays intended to stop mail-in ballots from getting counted — though the research suggests that that effort too would probably have resulted in a wash.

The Republicans may be shooting themselves in their foot while it’s still in their mouth. But while that doesn’t mean we can relax and let them get away with it, it does mean we don’t have to panic over it, either. We need mail-in voting for convenience and for reasons of health, but the major point I take away from this report is that Democrats beat Trump because of high voter interest. Put more focus on keeping that interest high — and on blocking voter suppression, too, of course.

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