What’s the Impact of Early Voting and Vote-by-Mail? Your Questions Answered.

If you are part of the one percent of Americans who were excited to see President Trump and former Vice President Biden spar on stage at yet another presidential debate, this is not your lucky week.

No, there wasn’t a second debate – replaced by dueling townhalls – but for the millions of Americans who have already cast their ballots, another shouting match wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

Early voting is underway in many states and more than 17 million people have already cast their ballots. Thirty-six states allow voters to request a ballot for any reason and 20 states will accept ballots after Election Day – that represents 65 percent of the nation’s electorate. As a benchmark, 16 states had more than 50 percent of their ballots cast via early, mail and absentee voting in 2016. In 2018, more than 31 million Americans, approximately 25.8 percent of election participants, cast their ballots by mail. To date, ballot requests – through in-person early voting or by mail – have surpassed 35 million.

But does early voting and voting by mail increase voter turn-out? Does it favor a political party? Will it delay the results? And, as the president (who already cast his ballot by mail) and other critics have argued, is mail-in voting riddled with fraud and abuse?

Let’s dive in.

Increase Turnout? Historically No.

Advocates of early, in-person voting claim that spreading voting out over several days or even weeks will increase voter turnout. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) made precisely that point when New York instituted early voting in 2019 ahead of the 2020 election.

The trouble is that there is no actual evidence that turnout is up in states that adopted early voting. 

In 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed 20 early voting studies and found that 15 of the 20 reviewed showed either no evidence of increased voter turnout or indicated that turnout decreased. Similarly, while the U.S. Census Bureau recorded a 17.2 percent increase in early and mail-in voting from 2000 to 2014, a study by the U.S. Elections Project found that voter turnout rates in a presidential election increased by only a few points during this same period of time and that turnout in midterm races held steady.

This year, however, could be different. It is 2020 after all. Take Dane County, Wisconsin, for example. To date, the number of submitted ballots is more than 36 percent of the total vote in 2016. According to University of Florida professor Michael McDonald, this represents potentially historic levels of voter turnout. He’s projecting that 150 million people will vote this year, the highest raw vote total in history and the highest percentage of voter turnout since 1908.

Favor a Party? Yes and No.'

Although Democrats tended to favor the expansion of voting by mail even before the pandemic, Republicans in red states like Florida and Arizona, which have large populations of retirees who tend to skew conservative, have pushed for years to expand mail-in voting. Yet, there is no clear and proven partisan effect. A Stanford study published in April revealed that voting by mail does not seem to affect either party’s share of turnout, nor does it appear to increase either party’s vote share.

The general consensus is that absentee voting will benefit whichever party does the best job of getting its voters to take advantage of it, as argued by Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist and election forecaster at the Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank. The recent primaries in Wisconsin and Florida serve as good examples of this phenomenon. The Wisconsin primary in April saw two-thirds of votes cast by absentee ballot. A New York Times analysis of the primary found that these votes skewed heavily in favor of the liberal candidates as Wisconsin Democrats made voting by mail a focal point of their campaign strategy. In Florida, however, which has a long history of Republican absentee voting, Republican voters made up a bigger share of absentee votes in the state’s primary earlier this year.

At this point in the election, Democrats are capitalizing on early voting options. Take again the battleground state of Florida. According to late-September reporting that ran in ClickOrlando, 2.4 million Democrats had requested mail-in ballots compared to 1.6 million Republicans – a sharp change from 2016 when requests and mail-in ballots were evenly split between the two parties with Republicans returning 1.1 million ballots and Democrats returning 60,000 fewer. Florida Republicans, however, have gained ground in voter registration with Democrat averages down 330,000 voters from four years ago and Republican voters expressing a preference for voting at the polls on Election Day. Keep in mind that Trump won Florida by just 113,000 votes – or 1.2 percentage points – in 2016.

Safe? YES!

A key argument against voting by mail has been its safety. While documented instances of fraud are more frequent for voting by mail than for in-person voting, a review by a journalism consortium funded by the Carnegie Endowment and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation headquartered at Arizona State University of all known voter fraud cases identified only 491 cases of absentee ballot fraud out of billions of votes cast between 2000 and 2012. Additionally, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, none of the five states that holds its election primarily by mail (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington) has had any voter fraud scandal since that change was implemented. In Oregon, for instance, there have only been about a dozen cases of proven fraud out of the over 100 million mail-in ballots sent out since 2000, amounting to only 0.00001 percent of all votes cast.

Delay Results? Yes-ish.

The big question remains that if millions of Americans take advantage of voting by mail, will the results be known on election night? A look at the rules for some key states suggests that it could be a few days before all the ballots are counted and, in a close race, those votes could tip the outcome one way or the other. There are 17 states that simply require the ballot to be postmarked by November 3 including key states like Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas. A handful of other states require the ballot to be postmarked by November 2, including the battleground state of Ohio. But several other battleground states must receive the ballot by November 3 including Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and New Hampshire. Paper ballots take longer to count than the electronic machine at polling locations, but it does seem possible to know the election results by November 6 if there are strong winning margins in key states for one candidate.

So when it comes to voting, one thing is clear: this election like many before it will depend on which campaign is most effective in turning out its supporters, regardless of whether they vote early, on Election Day or simply mail it in.

David Adams is a managing director at Cogent Strategies. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs and as Deputy Assistant Secretary for House Affairs to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Obama Administration, and had a distinguished career on Capitol Hill. For David's complete bio, click here.