There are many election reforms that could improve access to voting and make democratic participation more equitable. All-mail voting is just one of these policies, but recently, it’s been at the forefront of reformers’ minds. The method gained wide attention as a safe voting option during the 2020 election when the COVID-19 pandemic raged on. Today, we’re taking a deeper dive into a study of Colorado’s use of all-mail voting to learn how it benefits voters and what it could mean for our elections if more states rolled out the option.
In the study, “All-Mail Voting in Colorado Increases Turnout and Reduces Turnout Inequality,” researchers from three universities looked at the voter file data from Colorado before and after the state enacted all-mail voting. Historically, the research and analysis of all-mail voting have produced mixed results, and academic scholars have arrived at different conclusions about the effect of the policy on voter turnout. However, this new research presents a clear discovery: All-mail voting has been a resounding success at expanding and equalizing democratic access in Colorado.
Here are the key takeaways:
1. All-mail voting significantly increases turnout.
One thing is certain: Colorado’s enactment of all-mail voting has resulted in an impressive increase in turnout. The researchers’ data focused on voters who had registered before the 2010 election; the paper analyzed their turnout behavior in the next five elections. All-mail voting was in place beginning in the 2014 election cycle — the state proactively mailed ballots to all registered voters (voters did not need to request them) and provided them with multiple return methods, including in-person return. Then, they compared Colorado voter behavior to behavior in three neighboring states (Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico) that had not provided an all-mail voting option for their constituents.
The primary finding of this analysis? All-mail voting increased turnout overall among registered voters by 9.4%. There was a significant increase in turnout across every group when assessing based on age, income and race. Although the amounts by which turnout changed differed, all registered voters in the state benefited from the policy and were significantly more likely to vote than before the additional voting method was available. Put plainly, said the researchers, 9.4% is “a large effect. To the best of our knowledge, rarely, if ever, do we observe within-individual (or even within-state) turnout effects of this magnitude from changes in election law.”
2. Turnout increases from all-mail voting are higher among lower propensity voters.
Upon deeper analysis, the researchers found that although turnout increased among all demographic groups, it significantly varied between them — and voters who were historically less likely to head to the polls saw higher turnout increases as a result of all-mail voting. For voters under the age of 40, turnout increased by 16.6% compared to less than 10% for voters over 55. The researchers posit that this observation is consistent with polling data that shows young people face the highest barriers of time constraints from work or school that prevent them from getting to the polls — a problem not similarly faced by older adults. The addition of mail voting cancels out that problem and allows young voters to cast their ballots when it’s most convenient for them, free from the restraints of polling location hours.
The research reveals similar insights when looking at other demographic data. The new policy boosts turnout for the lowest-earning Coloradans by almost 10% “with the wealthiest Coloradans benefitting the least from the implementation of all-mail voting.” Similarly, turnout among blue-collar workers increased more than that among professional and managerial jobs. Voters without high school diplomas turned out at a 9.6% higher rate than before all-mail voting was enacted, whereas voters with graduate degrees had the lowest increase in turnout across the educational spectrum. Finally, all-mail voting was extremely effective at boosting Black voter turnout, resulting in a 13.2% increase. Voters identifying as Asian, Latino and ‘Other’ saw similarly high turnout increases while white voters saw the smallest change.
3. Mail voting addressed the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic — and it can fix some challenges of our democracy, too.
The results of this study are convincing: The establishment of all-mail voting increased turnout for all voters in Colorado. But perhaps more importantly, the policy made significant inroads in closing the gaps between demographic groups that were the result of inequitable ballot access. Wealthy, highly educated, white Coloradans saw the lowest increases in turnout from this new policy — but that’s because they already voted in very high numbers. These voters face very few barriers to ballot access: they are more likely to be able to take time off work to go vote, have salaried jobs with paid leave or dedicated voting time, transportation to get to the polls and predictable schedules that allow them to make a voting plan and stick to it. Despite these advantages, these voters still saw a turnout increase when all-mail voting was enacted, showing that voting from home on one’s own time is easier than heading to the polls, even for the most privileged individuals in the state.
Colorado’s all-mail voting policy demonstrates how expanded ballot access for all also means more equitable ballot access for groups disproportionately less likely to vote. Students, minority voters, poor voters and those with less formal education were all more likely to successfully cast their ballots when they were given this voting option, which allows for time-flexible voting from the convenience of one’s home. Colorado also proactively mails ballots to all registered voters, which is especially helpful for young or first-time voters who may not be familiar with election deadlines. Although the authors note that this research is specific to Colorado’s use of the policy, they encourage expanded mail voting in all states as a method to keep voters safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, their results have important lessons for all voting rights advocates: Making voting easier for those who face the most barriers to the ballot box is good for our democracy.