Parties Are Spending Big on Mail-In Vote Drives. Is It Worth It?

The Democratic Party of Illinois and the J.B. Pritzker gubernatorial campaign have invested $1 million in a drive to register new voters and sign them up to receive ballots in the mail. Two million eligible voters have been sent applications to vote by mail along with a letter from Secretary of State Jesse White endorsing mail-in voting as “a dependable way to vote [that] allows you to vote on your schedule in the convenience of your own home.” Republican operatives are pushing vote by mail as well, but on a smaller, more localized scale. For example, the Vernon Township Republican Central Committee is sending vote by mail applications to residents of Lake County.

It’s entirely legal for a campaign to distribute applications to vote by mail — both gubernatorial campaigns did so back in 2014 — but this year’s push by the Democratic Party is unprecedented in scope. And there are early signs it may be working. The Friday after the letters and applications were sent out, the Chicago Board of Elections received 3,000 vote-by-mail applications in envelopes that suggested the paperwork came from the Pritzker campaign.

Is mail-in a magic bullet?

But does encouraging people to vote by mail increase overall turnout? The experiences of other states suggests that it can – with some significant caveats. In 2014, Colorado sent every registered voter a mail-in ballot automatically, and a subsequent study found that the effort boosted turnout among young voters in particular. Twelve percent more 18-24 year olds cast ballots than predicted, turnout among voters in the 25-34 age range beat expectations by 7 percent, and voting remained steady among older age groups.

Those who vote by mail like it. Elizabeth Bergman examined the implementation of a pilot all-mail election in San Mateo County, California, and found that 64 percent of first-time mail voters voiced support for all-mail elections. Overall, 78 percent of voters in the county said they intended to vote by mail in the next election.

However, Bergman urges caution against thinking that voting by mail is a magic bullet that increases turnout. Her research suggests that in isolation, compulsory mail-in voting actually decreases turnout.  

Voter communication is key

What accounts for this paradoxical result? All the states that have switched to all-mail elections — Colorado, Oregon and Washington, along with some experimenting counties in California — coupled the switch with strong pushes to engage with voters. Communications between the local election authority and voters, such as voting guides and reminders to fill out ballots, consistently lead to higher turnout.

The upshot is that states and municipalities considering the switch to all-mail elections or even just increasing the proportion of mail-in votes should invest not only in the necessary changes to elections administration but also in communicating with the voters themselves. More voter outreach, not the way the ballot is cast, might be the key to boosting turnout.  

Election officials also need to clearly communicate to voters what is and isn’t required for their ballot.

In the 2016 election in Florida, 28,000 mail-in ballots were rejected, mostly because the ballot was unsigned or the signature did not match the voter’s registration fileUntil a 2007 lawsuit, Illinois law also allowed election workers to toss ballots with signature errors without notice to the voter. Now, the local election administration is required to notify voters that there is an issue with their ballot and give them a chance to correct it.

Meanwhile, a focus group in Virginia found that a major reason college students choose not to vote by mail is that they don’t know where to buy stamps. In Illinois, the government covers the cost of postage, but that information isn’t readily available anywhere online.

Unlike mandatory vote-by-mail states, Illinois doesn’t automatically send all voters mail-in ballots. Still, it has a fairly robust vote-by-mail system compared to other states. Voters can apply quickly and easily (and often online) without giving a reason, there’s an ample window of time in which to apply (90 days before the election), postage is covered, and ballots can be received up to two weeks after Election Day and still be counted. Yet, if this information isn’t being communicated to voters, they likely won’t see voting by mail as a good option.

Potential pitfalls

Voter misinformation is just one of the challenges of mail-in voting. In 2012, the New York Times reported that “votes cast by mail are less likely to be counted, more likely to be compromised and more likely to be contested than those cast in a voting booth.” While clarifying signature and other requirements would help, researchers from MIT and Caltech have also worried about the security risks of “having tens of millions of ballots being transmitted and marked without strict chain-of-custody procedures.”

In close elections, these problems could become acute and threaten the credibility of a mail-in system. And if people don’t trust the system, they won’t use it. Experts have suggested a number of best practices for mail-in programs, including ballot dropboxes, detailed ballot tracking, and rigorous procedures for notifying voters of problems with their ballots to avoid vote rejection. If properly implemented, these steps could help ensure the integrity of the system and alleviate voter concerns about using it.

It’s not just for parties

While political groups can spread the word about voting by mail, there’s no substitute for clear information from a neutral election authority. For one, the major political parties are only likely to direct their vote-by-mail efforts to strong supporters, leaving out a significant proportion of the public. The parties could also leave out important information or accidentally confuse voters. And people may not trust information that comes from parties or campaigns.

Election administrators have compelling reasons to increase voting by mail. After Colorado switched to compulsory mail-in voting, the cost per vote was cut from $16 in 2008 to $9.56 in 2014. Illinois lawmakers are not yet considering mail-only elections, but if election administrators can reliably predict fewer people will show up to the polls on Election Day because they’ve already sent in their ballots, then they may be able to spend fewer tax dollars on hiring and training election judges or printing provisional ballots. Some Illinois election authorities, including the Chicago Board of Elections, are already encouraging voters to apply for mail-in ballots.

Every state is different, and it’s not guaranteed that a directed push towards voting by mail will lead to increased turnout while also decreasing the costs of elections. But since both major parties have determined that it’s worth investing substantial amounts of money towards getting supporters to vote by mail, it may be something more election administrators should consider investing in as well.


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