Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Does Voting by Mail Increase Participation? Using Matching to Analyze a Natural Experiment

  • Thad Kousser (a1) and Megan Mullin (a2)

Would holding elections by mail increase voter turnout? Many electoral reform advocates predict that mail ballot elections will boost participation, basing their prediction on the high turnout rate among absentee voters and on the rise in voter turnout after Oregon switched to voting by mail. However, selection problems inherent to studies of absentee voters and Oregon give us important reasons to doubt whether their results would extend to more general applications of voting by mail. In this paper, we isolate the effects of voting in mail ballot elections by taking advantage of a natural experiment in which voters are assigned in a nearly random process to cast their ballots by mail. We use matching methods to ensure that, in our analysis, the demographic characteristics of these voters mirror those of polling-place voters who take part in the same elections. Drawing on data from a large sample of California counties in two general elections, we find that voting by mail does not deliver on the promise of greater participation in general elections. In fact, voters who are assigned to vote by mail turn out at lower rates than those who are sent to a polling place. Analysis of a sample of local special elections, by contrast, indicates that voting by mail can increase turnout in these otherwise low-participation contests.

Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Alberto Abadie , and Guido W. Imbens 2006. Large sample properties of matching estimators for average treatment effects. Econometrica 74: 235–67.

Paul R. Abramson , and John H. Aldrich 1982. The decline of electoral participation in America. American Political Science Review 76: 502–21.

Matt Barreto , Matthew Streb , Fernando Guerra , and Mara Marks . 2006. Do absentee voters differ from polling place voters? New evidence from California. Public Opinion Quarterly 70: 224–34.

Adam J. Berinsky , Nancy Burns , and Michael W. Traugott 2001. Who votes by mail? A dynamic model of the individual-level consequences of voting-by-mail systems. Public Opinion Quarterly 65: 178–97.

Gregory A. Caldeira , and Samuel C. Patterson 1982. Contextual influences on participation in U.S. legislative elections. Legislative Studies Quarterly 7: 359–81.

Gary W. Cox , and Michael C. Munger 1989. Closeness, expenditures, and turnout in the 1982 U.S. House elections. American Political Science Review 83: 217–31.

Jeffrey A. Dubin , and Gretchen A. Kalsow 1996a. Comparing absentee and precinct voters: A view over time. Political Behavior 18: 369–92.

Jeffrey A. Dubin , and Gretchen A. Kalsow 1996b. Comparing absentee and precinct voters: Voting on direct legislation. Political Behavior 18: 393411.

Alan S. Gerber , and Donald P. Green 2000a. The effect of a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote drive: An experimental study of leafletting. Journal of Politics 62: 846–57.

Alan S. Gerber , and Donald P. Green 2000b. The effects of canvassing, direct mail, and telephone contact on voter turnout: A field experiment. American Political Science Review 94: 653–63.

Alan S. Gerber , and Donald P. Green 2001. Do phone calls increase voter turnout? A field experiment. Public Opinion Quarterly 65: 7585.

Alan S. Gerber , Donald P. Green , and Ron Shachar . 2003. Voting may be habit forming: Evidence from a randomized field experiment. American Journal of Political Science 47: 540–50.

Donald P. Green , Alan S. Gerber , and David W. Nickerson 2003. Getting out the vote in local elections: Results from six door-to-door canvassing experiments. Journal of Politics 65: 1083–96.

Michael J. Hanmer , and Michael W. Traugott 2004. The impact of voting by mail on voter behavior. American Politics Research 32: 375405.

Benjamin Highton . 1997. Easy registration and voter turnout. Journal of Politics 59: 565–75.

Benjamin Highton , and Raymond E. Wolfinger 1998. Estimating the effects of the national voter registration act of 1993. Political Behavior 20: 79104.

Daniel E. Ho , Kosuke Imai , Gary King , and Elizabeth A. Stuart 2007. Matching as nonparametric preprocessing for reducing model dependence in parametric causal inference. Political Analysis. 10.1093/pan/mpl013.

Guido W. Imbens 2004. Nonparametric estimation of average treatment effects under exogeneity: A review. Review of Economics and Statistics 86: 429.

Robert A. Jackson 1996. A reassessment of voter mobilization. Political Research Quarterly 49: 331–49.

Jeffrey A. Karp , and Susan A. Banducci 2000. Going postal: How all-mail elections influence turnout. Political Behavior 22: 223–39.

Jeffrey A. Karp , and Susan A. Banducci 2001. Absentee voting, mobilization, and participation. American Politics Research 29: 183–95.

J. Eric Oliver . 1996. The effects of eligibility restrictions and party activity on absentee voting and overall turnout. American Journal of Political Science 40: 498513.

Samuel C. Patterson , and Gregory A. Caldeira 1983. Getting out the vote: Participation in gubernatorial elections. American Political Science Review 77: 675–89.

Samuel C. Patterson , and Gregory A. Caldeira 1985. Mailing in the vote: Correlates and consequences of absentee voting. American Journal of Political Science 29: 766–88.

G. Bingham Powell Jr. 1986. American voter turnout in comparative perspective. American Political Science Review 80: 1743.

Paul R. Rosenbaum , and Donald B. Rubin 1983. The central role of the propensity score in observational studies for causal effects. Biometrika 70: 4155.

Patricia L. Southwell , and Justin Burchett . 2000. The effect of all-mail elections on voter turnout. American Politics Quarterly 28: 72–9.

Robert M. Stein 1998. Early voting. Public Opinion Quarterly 62: 5769.

Richard J. Timpone 1998. Structure, behavior, and voter turnout in the United States. American Political Science Review 92: 145–58.

Raymond E. Wolfinger , Benjamin Highton , and Megan Mullin . 2005. How postregistration laws affect the turnout of registrants. State Politics and Policy Quarterly 5: 123.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Political Analysis
  • ISSN: 1047-1987
  • EISSN: 1476-4989
  • URL: /core/journals/political-analysis
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 1 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 65 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 4th January 2017 - 26th June 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.