Voter Turnout is Dismal in the U.S., Here's How to Fix It

Adding a Vote By Mail option in low turnout elections would greatly increase participation.

America is notorious for its low voter turnout rates; for instance, it has achieved 27 percent turnout in mayoral elections in major cities. To increase and encourage political participation, states should adopt Vote by Mail for local and special elections, as it has proven to raise turnout in these otherwise low turnout elections. 

Vote By Mail increases turnout by easing the voter’s burden. Standing in line for polls takes time and raises the cost of voting; for instance, many voters take off work to vote, while others suffer for hours in the rain. These costs and many others provide disincentives to participation for many voters. By contrast, Vote By Mail, in which ballots are mailed two to three weeks in advance, offers voters convenience. Furthermore, mailing individuals a ballot serves as a visible reminder and creates a culture of participation.

Oregon has been exemplary in its use of Vote By Mail. Since 1998, voting there occurs exclusively by mail and its 87 percent turnout led the country in the 2004 elections. Other states, such as California, have similarly experienced an increase in turnout from Vote By Mail, though only in low turnout elections. However, most states have not adopted Vote By Mail and at best allow for no-fault absentee ballots.

Analysis

Vote By Mail has weaknesses, but these can be remedied by using it exclusively for low-turnout elections. While data are mixed regarding high turnout elections, all of the data show that Vote By Mail is effective in low turnout elections. The Committee for the Study of the American Electorate shows that Vote By Mail decreases turnout in  presidential and midterm elections, and attributes the decrease to the diffusion of mobilization, whereby voters who were previously engaged by the public face of Election Day no longer participate. Kousser and Mullin confirm this decrease using a California experiment in which districts with Vote By Mail had lower turnout than those without it. The study attributes this decrease to voters no longer having a public feeling of going to the polls, which causes them to forget to mail their ballot. These explanations apply to only high turnout cases, and in low turnout elections, when there is little public visibility, the lower cost of voting enables more people to participate and the mailed ballot serve as a reminder. In such cases more voters do participate. In fact, overwhelmingly studies of Vote By Mail in low turnout elections shows that it increases turnout.

Voter fraud presents a challenge for Vote By Mail even in low turnout elections, though not a crippling one. Sizemore argues that voter fraud is easy given Oregon’s system and explains numerous ways in which it could occur, such as requesting extra ballots and then voting repeatedly.

While some fraud has occurred, states with a Vote By Mail system have implemented safeguards, and as the system develops, states will become increasingly adept at detecting and preventing fraud. This has occurred in Oregon, which suffered one controversy thus far and quickly proved that the 2004 claims of double voting were either false or caught by the system and under investigation. To date, fraud has not undermined any election and the number of fraudulent votes pales in comparison to the increase in turnout that Vote By Mail has achieved. 

Vote By Mail benefits those who would otherwise not vote because of the disincentives of the current system. Instead of not turning out because of the cost, these voters would have the opportunity to participate. Furthermore, because Vote By Mail is an addition rather than a replacement, voters who prefer polls would not lose out.

Next Steps

Vote By Mail has the potential to increase participation, particularly if used in low turnout elections. Policymakers should implement Vote By Mail for such elections, enabling more citizens to participate and allowing society to live up to our values of political participation and citizenship. To do this, they should follow the Oregon model of mailing ballots out to residents well in advance and publicize Vote By Mail. Unlike the Oregon model, though, they should maintain some (but fewer) polling places, so as not to alienate voters who prefer them. Closing some polling places will balance the cost of mailing ballots, providing a cost-neutral method that can effectively increase turnout in local and special elections.