Voting by Mail and Before Election Day: States Open Multiple Paths to the Ballot Box

Voting by Mail and Before Election Day: States Open Multiple Paths to the Ballot Box

Until the last few election cycles almost all voters in a large majority of states had to go to the polls on election day to cast their ballots.  During the last two presidential elections this has changed dramatically.  Last November approximately 30% of voters cast their ballots early, either through the mail or in person.  This marks a significant change in the way Americans vote and is forcing a similar shift in the way many campaigns get out their voters: most notably and successfully, in the presidential campaign of Barack Obama.

Today's Dispatch outlines the major policies that states are pursuing that are driving these changes, how they benefit voters and election administrators, and the GOTV opportunities for candidates where early voting is becoming the norm.

Table of Contents

Election Day Voting Not Enough to Accommodate All Voters

The last election saw over 9 million more voters than in 2004.  But as the number of people participating grows, it is becoming more clear that our election systems do not have the capacity to conveniently accomodate all voters.  Long lines at polling places have been the inevitable result.  

Long Lines a Persistent Problem:  In 2008 one-in-twenty voters had to wait in line for more than an hour, and waits of several hours were not uncommon in some states. The reality is that long lines are not just an inconvenience; people who cannot wait long enough to vote are disenfranchised by these bottlenecks at the polls.  Of the registered voters who didn't vote in the 2008 presidential election (80.1 million Americans), 20% indicated that long lines were a factor in not having voted.  That early voting is a crucial element in solving this problem has been demonstrated in Colorado, where machine breakdowns caused chaos at overburdened polls in 2006 and a majority of votes were cast early in a smooth election in 2008.  As we succeed in increasing electoral participation, early voting will be an essential tactic for managing a rising number of voters.

Single-Day Polling Excludes Some Voters, Not Convenient for Others:  There are many people who would like to vote but cannot because they have problems getting to the polls when they are open.  In the last presidential election many of the factors that registered voters who did not cast a ballot gave for not voting have to do with trouble getting to the polls.  Voters were kept from the polls in whole or in part because they were too busy (33%), polling was at a bad time/location (20%), or they had problems obtaining transportation (19%).  All of these problems could be remedied with some form of early voting.

And while some people were deterred or prevented from voting because they have trouble getting to the polls, the number of voters who prefer to vote early is clear from the close to a third of voters who chose to do so last year.  Even more to the point, in states with robust early voting options (including big states such as Florida, North Carolina, and Texas) more than half of voters are now voting early.  For instance, North Carolina saw early voting rates double from 30.8% in 2004 to 60.6% in 2008.

Progressive States Network - Mail-in and Early Voting
Early Voting Information Center
Early Voting Information Center - Early Voting Laws by State
US Elections Project - Early Voting 2008 (statistics)
Alvarez, Hall, Ansolabehere, Berinsky, Lenz, Stewart - 2008 Survey of the Performance of American Elections

Demand From Voters Drives Early Voting Growth- Opens Opportunity for Progressives in GOTV

Demand from voters is driving the adoption of early voting across the country. Traditionally, when only a small percentage of voters participated early, the demographics of early voters were distinctly in conservatives' favor (see Getting Out the Early Vote: Lessons for Progressives, 2005).  This, combined with the fact that early voters tend to be more partisan than the general electorate, gave progressives pause when contemplating their prospects for harnessing the early vote.  However, the thinking of many changed when President Obama used the early vote as a critical element in a successful get-out-the-vote effort.  

Obama captured a decisive 10 point victory among early voters according to a Democracy Corps survey.  That survey also found a tie among election day voters, indicating that Obama's victory depended on the early vote.  Part of the success came because early voters are more engaged and enthusiastic than election day voters and Obama was clearly on the winning side of a big enthusiasm/engagement gap.  But also key to the president's success was a successful effort to promote and manage early voting that allowed the president's base votes to be locked in before election day, freeing critical election day resources for use on swing voters.  Practically, this required moving up the campaign timeline to make sure advertising and voter contacts didn't come too late for early voters and tracking data on who had voted early in real time to adjust GOTV targeting.

Democracy Corps - The 2008 Early Vote
Paul Gronke - Getting Out the Early Vote: Lessons for Progressives

Permanent Absentee Balloting - A Voluntary Vote-by-Mail Option for All Voters

The most ubiquitous form of early voting is casting a mail-in ballot, commonly referred to as absentee voting.  While this form of voting has long been available under a restricted number of circumstances such as illness or absence from the county on election day, the majority of states have now liberalized their practices and allow any voter to cast an absentee ballot (so called "no-excuse absentee").  In addition, five states have implemented permanent absentee - where a voter registers with election officials to receive a mail ballot for every election.  Among those five, Oregon has now moved to universal vote-by-mail elections, as have all but one county in Washington.  These changes were driven by voter and election official demand, as well as cost savings from forgoing polling places.

Mail Ballot Registries Make Voting Easier for Voters and Election Officials:  Implementing a mail-ballot registry takes the burden off voters who want to vote by mail.  Instead of having to request a ballot for every election, a voter just checks a box on the voter registration form to become a permanent absentee voter.  This system also benefits election administrators who don't have to process a mountain of absentee ballot applications each year.  An absentee registry also gives officials a good idea of their absentee ballot needs months before the election -- important information when planning and budgeting for an election.

Permanent Absentee Hugely Popular in States Where Available:  Where a permanent absentee option has been made available it has proven even more popular than expected.  Oregon and Washington offered this option first and its popularity has led all or most of the counties in each state to go completely to mail-in elections.  California has only offered the option for two presidential elections and already approximately a third of voters are using it.  

Vote by Mail Project Common Cause - Getting it Straight in 08: What We Know About Vote-by-Mail Elections and How to Conduct Them Well
National Network for State Election Reform - Importance of Universal Absentee Voting
Oregon Vote by Mail Procedures Manual
Colorado Permanent Absentee Provisions

In-Person Early Voting - From Single Election Days to Extended Election Periods

In order to accommodate voters, 32 states allow residents to cast a ballot in-person before election day.  The form of early voting ranges from making absentee voting available in-person at elections offices, as is done in Vermont, to putting satellite voting sites and kiosks in numerous locations where people congregate such as malls and libraries as is done in Texas.  Obviously the extent of early voting opportunities determines how many voters take advantage of them.  

States such as Texas, Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia with relatively high numbers of satellite early voting sites and no permanent absentee option had from about a third to over half of voters casting ballots in-person before election day last November.  Early voting periods run from seven weeks in Kentucky to two weeks in a few states.  

Though many consider a longer voting period to be better, Tennessee and Nevada both have early voting periods of approximately three weeks, but saw a higher percentage of in-person early voters than Arizona whose period is two weeks longer.  This indicates that even a short early voting period can yield significant turnout benefits.

Texas Early Voting Legislation
Election Assistance Commission - Early Voting in Texas

Colorado - Case Study on How Permanent Absentee and Early Voting Transforms the Voting Experience

Perhaps the most dramatic case study in how early voting can change voters' experience is Colorado.  In 2006, Denver was ground zero for voting problems when a poorly planned switch to voting centers (large poll sites that serve multiple precincts) combined with machine problems to break the back of polling places.  This resulted in people waiting hours in lines throughout the city.  Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper at the time called election day 2006 "one of the most frustrating days, if not the most frustrating, I've had since becoming mayor."

Early Voting Proves a Successful Response to Poll Problems:  The state responded by implementing both a permanent absentee registry and allowing in-person voting for two weeks.  In addition, the governor and several county elections officials were strong advocates for early voting, making public pleas for voters to cast ballots early and avoid problems on election day.  The result was that close to eight in ten (80%) Colorado voters had already cast a ballot come election day.  Polling problems were not reported in 2008 and election officials have embraced early voting enthusiastically.

Vast Majority of Early Voters Choose to Vote by Mail:  While Colorado offered significant access to early, in-person voting, 80% of early votes were cast by mail.  The transformation in the state's voting practices was very largely driven by voters' preference for mail-in ballots, and particularly the permanent absentee option that has proved so popular wherever it becomes available.  As in California, a great many voters simply prefer to cast a ballot from their home on their own schedule.  And when offered the choice of mail-in or in-person early voting, four out of five chose to vote by mail.

Colorado Permanent Absentee Provisions
Denver Post - Voting Problems Overwhelm City
Rocky Mountain News - Ritter Advocates Mail, Early Voting to Speed Up Colorado's Election Results


Driven by the needs of and expectations of modern voters, 36 states now offer at least some avenue for citizens to vote before election day without an excuse.  In several states that offer permanent absentee voting or widespread access to in-person early voting, a majority of voters cast their ballots before election day in the last presidential election.  Nationwide the number was 30%.

Early voting is an important element in increasing the voting rate because our current polling place systems are not able to handle anywhere near universal participation.  And this change also presents opportunities for progressives if they adapt campaign practices to capture the increased enthusiasm of progressive voters.