Mail-in voting didn’t boost primary turnout
Wealthier suburbs tended to use new voting method
WHEN LAWMAKERS passed permanent no-excuse mail-in voting earlier this year, advocates billed it as a way to increase voter participation.
“This is a historic bill that is going to have more people participate, and when more people participate, democracy wins,” said Sen. Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat and the lead Senate negotiator on the bill, when the final version of the VOTES Act was released from a conference committee.
Yet in the first election since the law change, there is little evidence that mail-in voting increased turnout. Rather, it simply shifted when people voted.
Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at MIT and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, said that result tracks with political science research, which has found that voting methods have little effect on voter turnout.
Especially in primary elections, mail-in voting “is primarily a convenience method for high propensity voters,” Stewart said. In other words, it helps retain those voters that would have voted anyway. Stewart said that does not mean mail-in voting is not useful, both as a convenience for voters and for election administrators who can shift their workload to process some votes early. “There may be good policy reasons to do it, but absentee balloting as a method of increasing turnout is regularly oversold,” he said.
As CommonWealth reported, the last two state primaries have featured the highest number of voters since 1990, but that is mainly because there are more people registered to vote. The turnout rate of 21.8 percent in this year’s primary is equal to the 2018 primary and similar to other recent years. An analysis of voting rates in individual communities also found little correlation between high rates of mail-in voting and higher turnout.
CommonWealth looked at the top 20 percent of communities based on total voter turnout and compared them to the top 20 percent of communities in terms of mail-in voting. A similar comparison was done of the 20 percent of communities with the lowest voter turnout and the lowest vote-by-mail rates. In both cases, just seven or eight communities out of 70 were the same across the two measures. That means the communities with the highest rates of mail-in balloting were not generally the communities with the highest rates of voter participation, and the communities with the least voting done by mail were not the communities with the lowest rates of voter participation.
A second analysis compared voter turnout in 2022 and 2018 in the communities with the highest rates of mail-in voting. Overall, turnout in both primaries was 21.8 percent statewide. In the 70 communities with the highest rates of mail-in voting, turnout rates were similar between the two years, with a modest average increase of 1.6 percentage points between 2018 and 2022. There was virtually no change in turnout among the 70 towns with the lowest percentage of votes cast by mail.
The main differences in turnout appeared to be geographic, reflecting the different elections and the intensity of races in certain regions. For example, a big cluster of communities with lower turnout in 2022 was in western Massachusetts, which had a lot of competitive legislative races in 2018.
The southeastern region tended to have higher turnout in 2022, possibly because it is a more conservative region in a year with a competitive Republican governor’s race. Boston may have had higher turnout in 2018 because of the congressional primary that year between then-incumbent Democratic US Rep. Michael Capuano and challenger Ayanna Pressley, who defeated him. The Merrimack Valley had higher turnout in 2018, probably because of that year’s congressional primary, which now-Congresswoman Lori Trahan won.
There was a slight correlation showing that towns where more voters decided to cast ballots on Election Day rather than mail them in had higher turnouts. Partisanship may provide a partial explanation for that phenomenon.
Republicans in Massachusetts were vocally opposed to the permanent expansion of mail-in voting, and President Donald Trump before the 2020 election raised concerns about fraud in mail-in voting. As a result, Republican primary voters were far less likely than voters in the Democratic primary to cast their ballots by mail. More than half – 52 percent – of ballots were cast by mail in the Democratic primary compared to just 27.4 percent of ballots in the Republican primary. So high Election Day turnout could indicate areas where there were more Republicans voting overall.
The towns that had both high turnout overall and high mail-in voting tended to be Democratic-leaning, educated communities – places like Northampton, Arlington, Concord, and Acton.
Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG, which is part of the election modernization coalition that advocated for the passage of no-excuse voting by mail, said even if mail-in voting only slightly boosted turnout, that does not mean it is unimportant. “I don’t want to sound corny, but every additional vote is important,” Domenitz said. “We’re trying to open the door, not floodgates, but the door, to eliminate obstacles to voting.”
Domenitz added that it will also take several elections before it is possible to draw conclusions about voter behavior. The first mail-in voting occurred at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, so this is the first election in which it was used in a non-emergency situation. “It seems to me like we need to wait another cycle or two to go this is what’s actually happening when we’re in regular life,” she said.
Rachel Cobb, an associate professor and chair of political science at Suffolk University, said studies conducted pre-pandemic found that people who voted in alternate ways like mail-in or early voting were also those most likely to vote anyway. “The people who were most likely to vote anyway, which are affluent, white, educated people, took advantage of all of these convenience opportunities even more,” Cobb said. That is the same population, for example, that is used to using the mail for things like Amazon and grocery deliveries.
“We often as election reformers are interested in increasing turnout among the people who are least likely to turn out, but some of these reforms don’t always do that,” Cobb said.Cobb said it will also take time for more people to become aware of mail-in voting and use it. “I think it’s rather astonishing that so many people took advantage of it so quickly,” she said.
Many of the communities with the highest rates of voting by mail were wealthier suburbs like Acton, Wellesley, Natick, and Lexington. Smaller, rural communities tended to have few people voting by mail. Cities like Boston, Springfield, Worcester, and Lawrence tended to be toward the middle or lower end of communities ranked in terms of percentage of people voting by mail.