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Elections Q&As for Lawmakers: Does Absentee/Mail Voting Benefit One Party Over the Other?

As no-excuse mail voting gains popularity, researchers are taking a close look at electoral behavior.

By Lesley Kennedy  |  February 29, 2024

About this series: NCSL hosted legislators and legislative staff in December 2023 to answer common questions surrounding election processes and options, with an eye toward bill drafting in 2024 and beyond. Experts delved into topics ranging from absentee and mail voting and the role of poll watchers to technology and maintaining clean voter rolls. State Legislatures News broke down the questions and answers to help inform lawmakers on the intricacies of elections. Check Elections Q&As for Lawmakers often for more information.

The Expert: Paul Gronke, professor of political science, Reed College

Recent discussions have sparked debate about whether absentee or mail voting benefits one political party over another.

“While embraced by a small number of states two decades ago, the practice has become a permanent part of the electoral ecosystem in the United States," Gronke says, highlighting the significant growth of mail voting, especially in Western states like Oregon, California, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii.

And while absentee voting previously required an excuse and was used by a small percentage of the electorate, no-excuse mail voting has become a more common and accessible option, he adds.

"Even though these systems are in place, half or more of the voters submit their ballots through drop boxes or other methods, not just by mail," Gronke says.

Top Two Takeaways

  • Absentee and mail voting methods do not show evidence of providing a systematic advantage to one political party over another.
  • The effects of messaging from political figures can influence voter behavior and confidence, but this impact is complex and varies by demographic and geographic factors.

So, does absentee or mail voting offer one political party an advantage?

"It's complicated," Gronke says, noting the challenges social scientists face in attempting to control variables in political research. “Unlike Monopoly, where rules can be rewritten for a new game, election laws can't be randomly assigned, making it difficult to isolate their impact on election outcomes.”

He says innovative research methods have emerged because of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which mandates statewide voter registration databases. These databases have allowed researchers to track voters longitudinally, offering new insights into electoral behavior.

Still, determining a partisan advantage from that data remains tricky, as variations by race, ethnicity and party affiliation need to be considered before drawing conclusions from broad data, according to Gronke.

Gronke's research includes analyzing voting patterns in states like Texas and Indiana, where policy changes in 2020 provided a natural experiment for studying the impact of no-excuse absentee voting.

"We can look at people a few years younger than 65 and a few years older than 65," he says. "The only thing that they were different in electoral terms is whether they did or did not have access to no-excuse absentee voting."

The results were revealing. While there was a higher usage rate of mail voting among Democrats over 65 in Texas, the trend lines for turnout were parallel between the parties. "We have higher usage rates but no evidence of a partisan advantage," Gronke says. "The partisan advantage would be those lines moving apart, and they're not."

So while his extensive research suggests that absentee and mail voting do not unduly benefit one party over another, Gronke underscores the importance of considering local variations and warns against taking a one-size-fits-all approach to interpreting the data.

As for the impact of the 2020 messaging from political figures on mail voting, he says, "It's an unavoidable elephant in the room," acknowledging that its effects on voter confidence are still being understood.

Lesley Kennedy is NCSL’s director of publishing and digital content.

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