How Expansive Mail-in Voting Policies and an Efficient U.S. Postal Service Increase Voter Turnout

Three hands holding up three blue election mail envelopes, with a graphic paper background featuring red, blue and purple trend lines.

A recent study, conducted and written by Washington State University assistant professor of political science Michael Ritter, illustrates how pro-voting policies, like universal and no-excuse mail-in voting, along with a better performing U.S. Postal Service leads to higher voter turnout in U.S. elections. 

The report, which Ritter provided to Democracy Docket, was published in the Election Law Journal in June of this year. Ritter’s study uses data dating back to 2012 to predict how different voting policies and Postal Service performance could have changed turnout in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

A COVID-19-riddled 2020 shed new light on the importance of mail-in voting and the postal service.

In 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, states across the country expanded mail-in voting, and Americans took advantage of the method in large numbers. Yet that same year, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy came under frequent criticism for failing to adequately prepare for the expected surge in mail-in voting. In the study, Ritter writes that at a time when voters were increasingly using mail-in voting, there was an unusually high reduction in the number of mail-sorting machines as well as drop boxes, which allow voters to drop off their mail-in ballots at their convenience.

Although the Postal Service has federal leadership that sets some uniform policies nationwide, there are a number of regional agencies that have significant authority to change how service is administered by area. From 2012-2020, there were 67 Postal Service districts within nine divisions that each worked to maximize delivery performance. But as a result of this separation of power, certain regions are not run equally, and citizens in one area of the country may experience different postal performance than those in another area. This discrepancy trickles down to mail-in voting, which Ritter later explores in evaluating how the efficiency and timeliness of the Postal Service impacts voter turnout. 

As mail-in voting becomes more accessible, voter turnout accordingly increases.

In his study, Ritter examined the four mail-in voting policies used by states: excuse-required, no-excuse, permanent and universal. The most restrictive form of mail-in voting is excuse-required mail-in voting, which requires voters to provide an acceptable excuse in order to vote by mail. Utilized by 33 states in 2020, no-excuse mail-in voting is the second most restrictive and allows voters to request a mail-in ballot for any reason. This is followed by permanent mail-in voting, which allows voters to receive a mail-in ballot each election without having to make a new request. In 2020, nine states used permanent mail-in voting. The most accessible form of mail-in voting is universal mail-in voting, which was used by five states in 2020 and automatically sends mail-in ballots to every registered voter in the state.

Unsurprisingly, the study showed that accessible and expansive mail-in voting policies, like universal mail-in voting, increase voter turnout. In states that require voters to have an acceptable excuse in order to vote by mail, the probability that a voter cast a ballot in 2018 and 2020 was 62%. That number rose to 65% in states with no-excuse mail-in voting, 68% in states with permanent mail-in voting and 70% for universal mail-in voting.

Ritter also found that curing laws, which allow voters to rectify mistakes on their previously rejected ballots and ensure their votes are counted, were likewise associated with an increase in turnout. Eighteen states had cure laws in 2020, and voters in states with cure laws were 3.17% more likely to vote in states that also allowed universal mail-in voting, 2.36% more likely in states that also had permanent mail-in voting and 1.45% more likely in states that also had no-excuse mail-in voting.

Unlike pro-voting policies like ballot curing, restrictive voting requirements had a deterring effect on turnout.

While an ID is mainly required for those who vote in person, five states required an ID when voting by mail in 2020. In these states, voters had to mail in an acceptable form of identification along with their ballot. Notary or witness requirements, which existed in 11 states in 2020, mandate that another individual (in some instances a public notary) sign the return envelope on the mail-in ballot. 

Republicans nationwide have plagued their states with these unneeded requirements. Ohio Republicans, for example, put a law into effect earlier this year that requires virtually all Ohio voters to present a form of photo identification, an even more stringent restriction. Previously, Ohio voters were only required to present a non-photo ID, like a bank statement.

In Wisconsin, pro-voting groups have filed multiple lawsuits challenging the state’s mail-in voting witness requirement, which mandates that voters accompany their mail-in ballot with a witness certificate containing the witness’ address, and if a voter needs to cure their ballot, that same witness must be present when the voter seeks to rectify the error.  

Pro-voting groups and activists have long decried notary or witness requirements and ID requirements as needless, vote-suppressive measures and data from this study bears that out. 

Voters in states that require an excuse to vote by mail and impose notary, identification or witness requirements were a staggering 12.4% less likely to vote than those in states that require an excuse to vote by mail, but do not have any of the additional requirements. Similarly, individuals in states that do not require an excuse to vote by mail and imposed any of these additional burdens were 8.67% less likely to vote than those in states with no-excuse mail-in voting and without the added restrictions, revealing how suppressive these requirements can be even in states with relatively expansive mail-in voting.

A fast performing Postal Service is crucial to high turnout, especially in states with restrictive voting laws.

To examine how an efficient Postal Service affected turnout, Ritter used data from the Postal Regulatory Commission, which tracks how often first-class mail arrives on time. (Mail-in ballots are considered first-class.) With this data, Ritter then determined how certain areas of the Postal Service performed and applied that to turnout, finding that a high-performing Postal Service increased vote probability by 3.42% in states that require an excuse to vote by mail, 2.26% in states that have no-excuse mail-in voting and 1.16% in states with permanent mail-in voting. As states place more restrictions on mail-in voting, the effect of an efficient Postal Service on turnout increases. 

Ritter attributed the Postal Service’s positive impact on turnout to the fact that a better-performing Postal Service increases public confidence in mail-in voting, which in turn makes voters more likely to cast a ballot by mail. 

Additionally, the study revealed a decline in on-time deliveries from 2012 to 2020, a troubling fact given that a non-trivial amount of ballots were not counted in 2020 as a result of slow delivery, despite being legally cast. 

Despite clear benefits, Republicans continue to attack mail-in voting through the courts and in state legislatures.

Ritter’s study further exemplifies what voting rights advocates have said for years: restrictive voting policies suppress the vote and expansive voting policies encourage this fundamental right. It’s clear that Republicans are bent on continuing the former, as they are currently defending suppressive mail-in voting laws in court and attempting to pass new ones in state legislatures across the country. 

In Pennsylvania, Republicans are challenging the state’s plan to not count undated mail-in ballots, in Texas, they are fighting to maintain portions of the state’s election code that makes no-excuse mail-in voting less accessible and in Indiana, Republicans are defending a suppressive mail-in voting law. 

As if supporting anti-voting efforts in court isn’t enough, Republicans in state legislatures are trying to enact even more suppressive mail-in voting laws. Alabama will soon consider a bill that will criminalize assisting voters cast their ballots (with few exceptions) and North Carolina is on its way to enacting a voter suppression law that would shorten the amount of time provided to cast a mail-in ballot. 

Since 2020, other forms of mail-in voting — like community ballot collection and the use of drop boxes — have also come under Republican attack and are worthy of further study. In addition to  exploring how mail delivery speeds are linked to turnout outcomes, Ritter cited a need to investigate the role of drop boxes and how their usage, or lack thereof, impacts turnout going forward.