Is postage a barrier to voting by mail?  SB1586 in Oregon will require postage paid for VBM Is postage a barrier to voting by mail? SB1586 in Oregon will require postage paid for VBM

Senate Bill 1586
, which will require Oregon election officials to provide postage paid envelopes for the return of vote by mail ballots, was reported out of the Senate Rules Committee and is making its way to the floor will be discussed in a public hearing tomorrow, Feb. 24.

This is an interesting bill.  At first blush, it seems like a reasonable accommodation to make voting easier.  But as we’ve learned in many cases, making voting easier often does not increase turnout.  Adam Berinsky summarizes the situation nicely:

The problem, I believe, is that when we talk about the “costs” of voting, we have been thinking about the wrong kinds of costs—the direct costs of registering to vote and casting a ballot. Most politicians and scholars have focused reform efforts on these tangible barriers to voting, making it easier for all citizens to vote, regardless of their personal circumstances. But, as I have argued elsewhere, the more significant costs of participation are the cognitive costs of becoming involved with and informed about the political world. Studies of voting from the last 60 years make this point clear. Political interest and engagement, after all, determine to a large extent who votes and who does not.

The specifics of adding a pre-paid envelope can be a lot more complicated and the impact more difficult to predict than they might appear at first blush.

A large proportion of Oregon voters do not return their ballots by mail–they drop them off at county offices or at drop boxes.  56% of Oregon voters in the 2014 Survey of the Performance of American Elections report that they returned their ballots in person, and these data align closely to state figures.  The percentage returning by means other than mail have been creeping upwards in recent years, according to the Oregon Division of Elections.

BallotMethodDelivery_2014This had led Phil Keisling, the granddaddy of vote by mail in Oregon, to call the system “Universal Vote By Mail”, not voting by mail, because what is key is universal ballot delivery, not return by the postal service.  The point here is that prepaid postage will impact a shrinking portion of the current voting population.

Untitled 2In order to understand the reasons for the choice to hand drop better, I coded the 117 SPAE survey responses into four categories: convenience (“close by”, “on my commute”, “easy”), cost (“save money”, “I didn’t have a stamp”, “cheaper”), too late to mail (“last minute”, “make sure it gets there on time”), habit (“Always do it this way”, “In Oregon we can drop it off”), and security (“don’t trust the post office”, “mail theft”, “make sure it’s counted”).  I was very generous in coding cost so that even if the reason started with another rationale, any mention of costs, dollars, expenses, “didn’t have a stamp”, etc was coded as cost.

Most voters said they chose to return their ballots by mail because it was more convenient or because they had security concerns.  Just under 20%, or 11.8% of all voters (20% of the 59% who dropped their ballots) said they returned their ballots by mail due to cost or inability to get a stamp .  11.8% is not minimal, but these 11.8% also found it possible to return the ballot by other means.  Unfortunately, we have no information about those who chose not to vote at all because they couldn’t buy a stamp.

The Oregon Bus Project is advocating for this legislation, and they claim that young people today don’t know where to buy stamps or can’t because it’s too inconvenient:

Because post offices have been closing, many Oregonians must go out of their way to purchase a stamp in order to cast a ballot. Millennials often go to school, work multiple jobs, and are not available to go to the post office during business hours, leaving them with few options.

This claim stretches credulity.  Stamps can be purchased at any grocery and many convenience stores, most of which (at least in Portland metro) are open 24 hours.  It may be harder for rural voters to purchase stamps, but I suspect that rural voters are much more used to using the postal service on a regular basis.

Even if the state does require paid postage, there’s another wrinkle–business mail is handled differently than first class mail, and this could require other changes to Oregon’s vote by mail system.  A study conducted by the California Voting Foundation showed that prepaid postage slowed the processing of ballots because of the way business mail has to be processed and billed (see Section IV.6 of this report (boldface added)

All three counties have postal accounts to cover additional postage costs (though they don’t advertise it). The “postage due” costs were relatively minimal in all counties, typically amounting to a few hundred dollars in a major election. While some have suggested providing postage-paid envelopes to all VBM voters (and not just those overseas or living in an all vote-by-mail precinct as current law provides), doing so can actually delay VBM ballot processing since postage paid mail is typically sent business class, not first class. In addition, the cost must be debited from the account holder before the mail piece can be delivered. Ensuring postage-paid mail is debited from the correct account adds extra time to ballot processing and can further delay the return of voted ballots.

Moving to pre-paid mail may have to be accompanied by changes in the timeline for vote by mail ballots–when they are mailed out and when they can be returned (possibly including a provision that would only require ballots to be postmarked by election day). There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s a consequence of the change that needs to be addressed.

Requiring pre-paid postage may be a very reasonable improvement to Oregon’s vote by mail system. By lowering the barrier to returning the ballot, it could help a small number of citizens who currently find it too expensive or inconvenient to purchase a stamp and can’t drop off their ballot.  All indications, however, are that the impact will be quite low. What we do know for certain is that the change would cost the state approximately $1.2 million per election.

I’ve often heard advocates argue that “you cannot put a price on the right to vote,” and in principle this is true, but in practice, everything has a cost, and we have to evaluate those costs relative to other ways we can improve elections.

Let me close by referencing another reform that I am in the midst of examining–ballot tracking.  Ballot tracking was recommended by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration as a way to address public concerns about the security of the vote by mail ballots, and has been adopted by a number of jurisdictions that handle large numbers of vote by mail ballots.  Ballot tracking systems have been put in place by a number of jurisdictions that use voting by mail.  Ballot Trace, for example, used by Denver County, has won national awards.

But the question needs to be asked: does ballot tracking really improve public faith and confidence in the system?   Does anyone really track their ballots?  Indications thus far are that only a tiny percentage of voters actually use the ballot tracking systems.  Is this a solution in search of a problem?  Before we spend millions of dollars on free postage paid envelopes or ballot tracking systems, we should have a good answer to these questions.

Criticizing the Iraq War remains a winning strategy, even for GOP candidates Criticizing the Iraq War remains a winning strategy, even for GOP candidates


Data: 2014 CCES

Data: 2014 CCES

As the South Carolina results roll in, many of the commentators on CNN seem flummoxed by the fact that Donald Trump criticized the war in Iraq and still won in South Carolina, “a state with a high number of conservatives and veterans.”

But do conservatives and veterans think the war in Iraq was a mistake or not?  CNN seems to think they do.

The reality is that public views of the war are very mixed–Democrats overwhelmingly think the war was a mistake, Independents (who are able to vote in the SC primary), and Republicans continue to support the war.

Source: 2014 CCES

Source: 2014 CCES


What about veterans?  The assumption on CNN seems to be that veterans would support the war, but in fact they do not.  Veterans, whether measured as “I served in the military” or “I  am a member of a military family” are almost evenly divided on the wisdom of invading Iraq.

There are many reasons that Trump won SC, but his criticism of the Iraq War should not surprise anyone.  Among Independents, Democrats, and even members of the military, the war remains very unpopular.

Understanding and improving American voter turnout Understanding and improving American voter turnout

David Becker, Director of the Election Initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trusts, issued a clarion call in the Stanford Social Innovation Review for a “new approach to reversing the downward spiral of low turnout.”  The article is part of a series on “The Role of Philanthropy and Nonprofits in Increasing US Voter Turnout” sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

There is much to be commended in Becker’s article. He calls for a comprehensive survey to understand non-voters, in contrast to the typical academic surveys that focus on understanding voters.   The survey will feed into field experimental studies that will identify methods and techniques to motivate non-voters to vote, and perhaps more importantly, move tangential (presidential only) voters into habitual voters.

Now comes the academic rain on Becker’s parade.

First, there is little evidence of a “downward spiral” in voter turnout, if by downward spiral, Becker means a self-reinforcing, vicious circle of a low turnout election, followed by political dissatisfaction (perhaps stimulated by a polarized legislature), followed by even lower turnout.

Kelly Born’s article that launched off the series, drawn from the US Elections Project, shows that voter turnout in Presidential and Midterm elections has been mostly unchanged for nearly a century.  There have been bumps up and down, but focusing (as Becker does) on low turnout in 2014 because it coincidentally is the lowest turnout in a federal general election since 1942 is a convenient choice of endpoints while ignoring 70 years of data in between.

Source: University of Florida US Elections Project

What is quite apparent is that turnout in the United States was high in the 19th century, declined during the Progressive era, in part as a consequence of reforms intended to weaken the role of parties in structuring our political system, and in part because two large waves of newly eligible voters entered the system, immigrants and women.

If we focus in more closely on the post-war era, there is an apparent decline in participation after 1968–volumes have been written about the impact of the 1960s on American politics–but also a substantial increase in turnout from 1996-2008.

Courtesy: US Elections Project

Courtesy: US Elections Project

In short, there is little evidence of a downward spiral in turnout.  Instead, as Adam Berinsky points out,

“…the only way to both increase turnout and eliminate socioeconomic biases in the voting population is to increase the engagement of the broader public with the political world. Political information and interest, not the high tangible costs of the act of voting, are the real barriers to a truly democratic voting public.”

This doesn’t mean that detailed surveys focusing on non-voting will not be valuable–they surely will be.  And a toolbox of approaches for non-partisan voter mobilization groups would be an invaluable contribution to the field.

But we need to take seriously the political and structural barriers to substantially increasing participation in the United States.  For instance, the real gains will be made among younger voters (18-29)(call for proposals here), less well-educated voters, and Hispanics (not African Americans, unless participation among this group declines substantially with Obama no longer on the ticket).  (See demographic comparisons here.)

And we need to turn our attention to other elections.  In primary elections, for example, turnout levels are abysmal and primaries arguably have a much larger impact on political polarization.  State and local elections rank even lower (25% turnout is high for a municipal election).  If we are really going to engage citizens with their political system, perhaps engaging them with the neighborhoods, towns, municipalities, and states would yield much higher gains.

College voting, college towns, and early voting College voting, college towns, and early voting

Hat tip to Doug Chapin who reported that the North Carolina State Board of Elections has ordered the Watauga County Board of Elections to establish an early voting location on the Appalachian State University campus.  (Full disclosure: I have been serving as the inaugural Daniel German Endowed Visiting Professor of Political Science at ASU from 2014-2016.)

Watauga_unaffil_18-25_2012Along with Doug, I followed this controversy during the 2014 general election, when I was on campus.  I took photographs at the time of the Watauga County Administration Building, the single location proposed by the County to conduct early voting, and the Plemmons Student Union, the proposed alternative location.  Unfortunately, these photos were lost along with my camera on a recent trip, so I will have to describe them from memory.

The problWatauga_unaffil_66_2012ems with the County building are many–parking is quite limited, the room designated for early voting is not very large, and the alcove that would shelter waiting voters from the weather (no small consideration in the mountains) is quite small.  Contrast this with the Student Union: there is a four story parking deck just across a sidewalk, the room used for early voting is a large ballroom in a much larger building that has good ADA access, restroom facilities, etc.

watauga2012_18yearoldMost importantly, however, the Union sits adjacent to a large traffic circle that serves as a primary hub for the “AppalCart”, the only public transportation system available in the county (the system is a partnership between ASU and the County).

I did find some problems with the Union.  I counted nine entrances to the building, and was able to find one tucked away in a corner that lacked the requisite “no canvassing” sign.  In addition, because the room for early voting is inside a larger building, it is not clear whether the “no canvassing” boundwatauga2012_66yearoldary starts from the outside of the building (encompassing the whole building) or from the door that actually enters the ballroom.  Do students (or others) wearing politically themed t-shirts inside the building, for example, violate the “no canvassing” rule?

The political patterns in the county are very clear, however.  The central part of Watauga (City of Boone) is younger, more likely to be unaffiliated, and vote Democratic at a much higher rate.  The outer portions of the county are older and more Republican.  Some quick graphics based on 2014 registration statistics are shown here.  Boone City is in the center of the map.  The link to the state statute that gives the SBOE this power is here.


How does early voting affect presidential primaries?

Most observers are aware that early voting is an important part of the elections process, but much less attention has been given to how early voting may alter candidate competition and voter decision making during the presidential primaries.

As Redlawsk, Tolbert, and Donovan point out in Why Iowaa key feature of the current presidential primary process is that it is a sequential election. They write (p. 144):

…early events “matter” in part because news about outcomes in early states serves as a major source of information about candidate viability in a relatively low-information choice setting

When you add early voting to the mix, things get a lot more interesting, because some voters in later primary contests may not wait to cast their ballots until election day.  They may cast the ballots early, based on a different set of signals.

Consider this: if Bernie Sanders wins the New Hampshire primary on February 9th, as some models predict, no-excuse absentee ballots are already in the hands of voters in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and a number of other large states.

And early in-person voting will have started in a number of states prior to the South Carolina primary–currently identified as Hillary Clinton’s “firewall”.

Elliott Fullmer examined this question in his 2015 Presidential Studies Quarterly article, “Early Voting and Presidential Primaries: A New Advantage for Front Runners?”  Fullmer wrote in the abstract:

Early voting has become an important feature of presidential elections. While research has generally focused on whether programs increase turnout, few have considered whether early voting alters the information environment in campaigns. Those who vote early may do so before important information becomes available in the final weeks of a campaign. I speculate that early voting should benefit early front-runners in presidential nomination contests, as voters may cast early votes for these candidates before fully considering their less-known opponents. Examining exit-poll data from the 2008 Democratic primaries between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I find that Clinton indeed benefited from early voting in several early primary states.

Marc Meredith and Neil Maholtra, in their 2011 Election Law Journal article “Convenience Voting can Affect Election Outcomes,”  take a different look at this question, taking advantage of the “natural experiment” that is ongoing in California–some precincts (< 250 registered voters) are forced into fully vote by mail elections while slightly larger neighboring precincts use the normal mix of no-excuse and election day voting.

The especially interesting thing about the 2008 California primary is that John Edwards and Rudy Giuliani withdrew from the race only five days before the primary, and Fred Thompson withdrew 15 days before the primary. These three candidates were clearly “not viable” for those who cast ballots after they withdrew.  Not surprisingly, Edwards, Giuliani, and Thompson received a lot more support in the vote-by-mail precincts.

Overall, the authors conclude:

… the use of VBM affects the relative performance of candidates remaining in the race and increases the probability of selecting withdrawn candidates. Our findings have implications both for election administration policy and for the study of campaign effects in American elec- tions. Election officials should consider waiting until closer to Election Day to send out mail ballots, or instruct voters to wait until they are ready to make a decision before voting.

Will these same dynamics hold in 2016?  I have some strong suspicions that they will, but it will not necessarily benefit the front runner, as Fullmer found in 2008.  The volatility of the GOP field makes it much less predictable.  Candidate drop outs later in the season, and just before particular primaries, should alter the vote totals of the remaining candidates, but in ways that are not really predictable ahead of time.

All this makes for an interesting intellectual puzzle, but perhaps not more than that.  The percentages of voters who cast ballots more than a week before the scheduled primary is not usually that large.  I’ll be posting more information on that matter in a few days.


Does civic education in class translate into civic participation outside of class? Recent article says: a bit.

Ryan Claasen and Quin Monson of BYU have a recent article in the Journal of Political Science Education that tests the impact of a series of civic education exercises in two large introductory American politics classes.

What makes the paper particularly nice are these features that provide much greater leverage on the question of impact:

  • An identical manipulation was implemented at two large research universities, but ones with different local political cultures, one conservative and religious (BYU) the second more liberal and secular (Kent State)
  • They used experimental methods, assigning students to a “writing lab” that was, for a randomly selected portion, political blogging
  • They compared political behavior among the groups 6, 12, and 18 months after the classes

The impact of the class manipulation was modest, with only minor movements in reported voter turnout. More encouraging, however, was the impact of the blogging exercise on student engagement with politics writ large–the bloggers reported higher levels of news consumption and information about politics well after the class.

Abstract below:

Despite consensus regarding the civic shortcomings of American citizens, no such scholarly consensus exists regarding the effectiveness of civic education addressing political apathy and ignorance. Accordingly, we report the results of a detailed study of students enrolled in introductory American politics courses on the campuses of two large research universities. The study provides pre- and postmeasures for a broad range of political attitudes and behaviors and includes additional long-term observations in survey waves fielded 6, 12, and 18 months after the conclusion of the class. Long-term observation provides leverage absent in many prior studies and enables us to compare the changes we observe during the semester to those that take place beyond the confines of the classroom and during important political events, such as the 2012 presidential election. Also embedded in the study is an experiment designed to assess whether students’ enthusiasm for “new media” (e.g., blogs) can be harnessed in American politics courses to stimulate long-lasting political engagement. We find evidence that civic education matters for some, but not all, measures of political engagement. Moreover, we find evidence that what one does in the classroom also matters. For some dimensions of political engagement, this study finds evidence of lasting civic education effects and the experimental manipulation compellingly locates the source of some engagement variation in the classroom.

Party support for new election formulae: power vs. policy

New article by Damien Bol in Party Politics examines when political parties support changes to the electoral formula in their country.  Bol implicitly compares a model where parties support a reform strictly because they think it will increase their share of seats in Parliament vs. reforms that benefit (or harm) social groups assumed to support the party’s platform.  (I think it’s a bit misleading to call this latter source of support “values” as Bol does in the titlebut later changes to “policy”.)

Regular readers of this blog may be confused by the title of the piece–“reform” refers only to changes in the proportionality formula–but the paper is an interesting treatment nonetheless.

Title: “Electoral reform, values and party self-interest”


It is often taken for granted that parties support electoral reform because they anticipate seat payoffs from the psychological and mechanical effects of the new electoral system. Although some studies point out that elements related to values and the willingness to achieve social goals are also relevant to explaining party preference in those situations, a general model of how these considerations influence support for electoral reform is still missing. To fill this gap, I develop in this article a policy-seeking model accounting for values-related factors and operationalize it using one of the most firmly established effects of electoral systems in the literature: The degree of inclusiveness and its consequences for the representation of social groups in parliament. The empirical relevance of this model is then tested using an original dataset reporting the actual position of 115 parties facing 22 electoral reform proposals in OECD countries since 1961. The results show that willingness to favour the electoral system most in line with a party’s electoral platform has a unique explanatory power over party support for a more proportional electoral system. In turn, values appear to be as crucial as party self-interest in explaining the overall electoral reform story.

The public does support voter ID laws, even if they don't know much about how these laws operate The public does support voter ID laws, even if they don’t know much about how these laws operate

It’s almost always correct that the devil is in the details, but it’s difficult to convey these details in short articles.  Making things worse, headline writers have a tendency toward clickbait.

Both tendencies are evident in a provocatively titled article, ” The public doesn’t support restrictive voter ID laws, but many new ones will be in force in 2016,” by Herman Schwartz in the Reuter’s Public Opinion Blog.

The title, read in isolation, is wrong, or at best badly misleading.   The public strongly supports a requirement to show a photo ID prior to voting.  Support is strong whether the question is asked in a very generic fashion or when specific kinds of photo IDs are described.   Schwartz looked at 37 polls for his commentary, including one that I collaborated on with scholars at MIT and Appalachian State University.  We report detailed question wordings for 19 polls are reported in the Appendix to our paper.

Our data (shown below) indicates that  support is uniformly strong among Republicans, while Democratic support varies by ideology, level of education, and attention to politics.  Nonetheless, more than half of Democrats (and far more Independents and Republicans) support photo ID in recent polls.

Partisan Support for Photo ID

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APSA Presentation link

A quick link to Peter Miller and my paper on public opinion and torture. not pertinent to Early Voting but this lets us get to our presentation.

Election Sciences, Election Administration, and Election Law Panels at APSA

The APSA meeting is coming up next week in San Francisco.  I searched the online program using the terms “election reform”, “election law”, and “election administration”, and a subset of hits from “campaign finance”. The following list of panels may be of interest to my readership.  Please feel free to chime in on the comments if I have missed any key panels.

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