Does Voting by Mail Increase Participation? Using Matching to Analyze a Natural Experiment

Posted: 18 Aug 2009

See all articles by Thad Kousser

Thad Kousser

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) - Department of Political Science

Megan Mullin

Duke University - Nicholas School of the Environment

Abstract

Would holding elections by mail increase voter turnout? Many electoral reform advocates predict that mail ballot elections will boost participation, basing their prediction on the high turnout rate among absentee voters and on the rise in voter turnout after Oregon switched to voting by mail. However, selection problems inherent to studies of absentee voters and Oregon give us important reasons to doubt whether their results would extend to more general applications of voting by mail. In this paper, we isolate the effects of voting in mail ballot elections by taking advantage of a natural experiment in which voters are assigned in a nearly random process to cast their ballots by mail. We use matching methods to ensure that, in our analysis, the demographic characteristics of these voters mirror those of polling-place voters who take part in the same elections. Drawing on data from a large sample of California counties in two general elections, we find that voting by mail does not deliver on the promise of greater participation in general elections. In fact, voters who are assigned to vote by mail turn out at lower rates than those who are sent to a polling place. Analysis of a sample of local special elections, by contrast, indicates that voting by mail can increase turnout in these otherwise low-participation contests.

Suggested Citation

Kousser, Thad and Mullin, Megan, Does Voting by Mail Increase Participation? Using Matching to Analyze a Natural Experiment. Political Analysis, Vol. 15, Issue 4, pp. 428-445, 2007. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1448408 or http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/pan/mpm014

Thad Kousser (Contact Author)

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) - Department of Political Science ( email )

9500 Gilman Drive
Code 0521
La Jolla, CA 92093-0521
United States

Megan Mullin

Duke University - Nicholas School of the Environment ( email )

Box 90328
Durham, NC 27708-0328
United States

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