Choosing the Less Convenient Way to Vote: An Anomaly in Vote by Mail Elections

Date01 March 2020
Published date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-183pq6PqNRV6Km/input 890009PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919890009Political Research QuarterlyMenger and Stein
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(1) 196 –207
Choosing the Less Convenient
© 2019 University of Utah
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Way to Vote: An Anomaly in Vote
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919890009
by Mail Elections
Andrew Menger1 and Robert M. Stein2
Nearly two-thirds of persons who receive an unsolicited ballot in the mail before Election Day choose to return their
ballot in person, rather than through the less costly and more convenient U.S. Postal Service. Why? How and when
voters choose to return their mail ballot is consequential to the administration of elections and the confidence voters
have in the outcome of elections. We offer and test four explanations for how vote by mail voters choose to return
their ballot, including the social rewards of voting, the costs of voting, trust in U.S. Postal Service and a preference to
cast a ballot after campaigning ends. We find supporting evidence for each explanation conditioned by prior history
of voting.
elections, vote by mail, political behavior
Efforts to reform the way we vote have expanded signifi-
explained by the large share of VBM voters who choose
cantly in the last fifty years. A greater number and share
not to take up the less costly way of returning their ballots
of voters now cast their ballots in ways that were intended
through the postal service. Understanding why voters in
to be more convenient and less costly, presumably
VBM elections choose the more costly means of return-
increasing voter participation (Burden et al. 2014; ing their ballots may provide insight into why VBM elec-
Leighley and Nagler 2014; McDonald 2018). However,
tions have not fulfilled their promise of higher voter
some unexplained anomalies in the electorate’s response
to efforts to reduce their costs of voting have accompa-
The method of ballot return also has consequences for
nied these reforms and have persisted over time.1 In this
election administration. Ballots that are mailed in are also
paper, we seek to understand the motivations behind the
usually returned and received earlier (Menger and Stein
variation in how vote by mail (VBM) voters choose to
2018), which can help election officials by spreading out
return their mailed ballot. Nearly two-thirds of persons
the verification and counting process. The rush of last-min-
who receive an unsolicited ballot in the mail before
ute ballot return presents an obstacle to the efficient imple-
Election Day choose to travel out of their way to return
mentation of VBM elections because it adds personnel
their ballot in person, rather than through the less costly
costs to verifying and counting ballots and undermines the
and more convenient U.S. Postal Service (USPS; Pew
likelihood that all ballots are accurately counted and
Charitable Trusts 2015).
reported on Election Day. The latter can have significant
How and when voters choose to return their mail bal-
consequences for the confidence voters have in the legiti-
lot is consequential to voter participation, the administra-
macy of election outcomes (Sances and Stewart 2015).
tion of elections, and the confidence voters have in the
Why do voters in VBM elections choose to return their bal-
outcome of elections. VBM elections have been touted a
lots in person and just before Election Day rather through
means of increasing voter turnout, especially among
the more convenient method of the USPS? What might this
under represented populations including nonwhites and
behavior tell us about how and why persons vote?
younger voters. Research (Berinsky et al. 2001; Burden
et al. 2014; Fitzgerald 2005; Funk 2010; Gerber et al.
1Washington University in St. Louis, MO, USA
2013b; Gronke and Miller 2012), however, suggests that
2Rice University, Houston, TX, USA
turnout effects from VBM elections have been modest,
Corresponding Author:
variable, and in some instances nonexistent. Lower than
Robert M. Stein, Rice University, Ms 25, Houston, TX 77251, USA.
expected turnout rates in VBM elections may partially be

Menger and Stein
We offer and test four explanations for this behavior
from returning their ballot in person or even choosing to
including voter distrust of the postal service, a desire to
vote in person.2 In the three states that conduct all their
ballot at the end of the election campaign, the costs and
elections by mail, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington,
convenience of voting, and the social rewards associated
between 40 percent and 70 percent of all mailed ballots
with voting. We find supporting evidence for each expla-
are returned in person and not by mail (Pew Charitable
nation, but the effects of two factors—a preference for
Trusts 2015). Even in states with only absentee voting, 25
voting at the end of campaigning and a preference for
percent of all requested absentee ballots were returned in
voting with others—are conditioned by voters’ prior vot-
person, rather than by the more convenient and less costly
ing history. The method frequent voters choose for return-
postal service (Pew Charitable Trusts 2015).
ing their VBM ballots is shaped by their preference for
Mail-centric voting systems and especially VBM elec-
the social rewards of voting with others, their trust (or
tions pose a challenge for local election officials (LEOs).
distrust) of the USPS, and to a lesser degree by their pref-
Elections conducted by mail allow LEOs to save money
erence for greater convenience and lower costs of voting,
by cutting down on equipment, staff, and location rental
but not by their preference for voting after campaigning
costs. However, the late return of paper ballots presents
ends. Conversely, infrequent voters’ choices of how to
an obstacle to the efficient implementation of VBM elec-
return their ballots are impacted by their preferences for
tions. Since these ballots have to be signature-verified
greater convenience, a desire to cast their ballots after
and counted, receiving the bulk of ballots in the last few
campaigning ends, and a (dis)trust in the postal service to
days can add personnel costs for LEOs. This rush can also
return their mail ballots, but not by their preference for a
undermine the likelihood that all ballots are accurately
social voting experience. These differential effects are
counted and reported on Election Day. Late reporting of
observed when frequent voters are defined either as con-
the election results is associated with lower voter confi-
sistent general election voters or those who cast votes in
dence in the accuracy and legitimacy of election out-
past party primary elections.
comes, especially in close elections (Atkeson and
Our paper proceeds in the following way. In the next
Saunders 2007; Sances and Stewart 2015). In Colorado,
section, we briefly review the history of VBM elections,
election officials have addressed this problem with adver-
the inconsistency with which VBM voters choose to
tising aimed at increasing early ballot return by mail and
return their ballots, and why this anomaly might be
at in-person ballot drop-off locations. The efforts of elec-
important for the conduct and administration of elections.
tion officials in one Colorado county increased the pro-
In the third section, we detail four explanations for how
portion of ballots returned in person, but also resulted in
voters choose to return their mail ballots. We describe our
fewer ballots returned three or more days before Election
data and hypotheses drawn from our explanations in the
Day (Menger and Stein 2018), which demonstrates the
fourth section, and test these hypotheses in the fifth sec-
connection between in person and late ballot return.3
tion, concluding in the final section with a discussion
how our findings might inform election administration of
Reasons for How Voters Return
VBM elections and other modes of voting.
Their VBM Ballot
VBM Elections
One of the intentions behind the adoption of VBM elec-
tions was to reduce the costs of voting, making the process
Three states—Oregon, Colorado, and Washington—con-
more convenient so that more persons would be able to
duct all their elections by mail. Twenty-two other states
vote easily. By mailing every eligible voter a ballot weeks
have provisions to allow certain elections to be conducted
before Election Day with prepaid postage for returning the
entirely by mail. Others states including California have
ballot, voters no longer had to find the time to travel to
adopted VBM elections on an optional county-by-county
polling locations to cast their ballot. The costs of in-person
basis. Another 27 states and the District of Columbia per-
voting extend beyond just the time and distance voters
mit any qualified voter to vote absentee without offering an
have to travel to vote. The time to check-in and cast a ballot
excuse (National Conference of State Legislatures 2019),
is consequential and decreases voter participation and bal-
and eight of these states allow voters to sign onto a perma-
lot completion (Menger and Stein 2018; Stein et al. 2019).
nent absentee list to receive a mailed ballot for every future
Due to their effects on the time voters...

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