A commonly expressed concern about vote-by-mail in the United States is that mail-in ballots are sent to dead people, stolen by bad actors, and counted as fraudulent votes. To evaluate how often this occurs in practice, we study the state of Washington, which sends every registered voter a mail-in ballot. We link counted ballots and adminis- trative death records to estimate the rate at which dead people’s mail-in ballots are improperly counted as valid votes, using birth dates from online obituaries to address false positives. Among roughly 4.5 million distinct voters in Washington state between 2011 and 2018, we estimate that there are 14 deceased individuals whose ballots might have been cast suspiciously long after their death, representing 0.0003% of voters. Even these few cases may reflect two individuals with the same name and birth date, or clerical errors, rather than fraud. After exploring the robustness of our findings to weaker conditions for matching names, we conclude that it seems extraordinarily rare for dead people’s ballots to be counted as votes in Washington’s universal vote-by-mail system.
The partisan battle over vote-by-mail in the 2020 election is raising questions about how absentee voting will affect political participation and election outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic. We study this question using administrative data from Texas’s July 14th primary runoff, where only people 65 and older could vote absentee without an excuse. Despite concerns that COVID-19 would depress turnout in the absence of absentee voting, we find that the turnout gap between 64 and 65 year olds did not markedly increase during COVID-19, even as the rate of absentee voting tripled relative to previous runoffs. While we find that the gap in rates of absentee voting is three times larger for Democrats than Republicans during the pandemic, high rates of in-person voting by Republicans offset this increase, leaving the partisan composition of turnout unchanged from past runoffs. Though extrapolating these results requires caution, they suggest that expanding absentee voting during the pandemic may cause large numbers of voters to shift to a more health-preserving mode of voting, without necessarily changing election outcomes even despite major partisan differences in enthusiasm for absentee voting.
In response to COVID-19, many scholars and policy makers are urging the United States to expand voting-by-mail programs to safeguard the electoral process, but there are concerns that such a policy could favor one party over the other. We estimate the effects of universal vote-by-mail, a policy under which every voter is mailed a ballot in advance of the election, on partisan election outcomes. We find that universal vote-by-mail does not affect either party’s share of turnout or either party’s vote share. These conclusions support the conventional wisdom of election administration experts and contradict many popular claims in the media. Our results imply that the partisan outcomes of vote-by-mail elections closely resemble in-person elections, at least in normal times.
An increasing number of states have adopted laws that require voters to show photo identification to vote. We show that the differential deterrent effect of strict ID laws on turnout, the differential effect of the laws on those without valid ID, persists even after the laws are repealed. To assess the persistent effect of ID laws on turnout we leverage administrative data from North Carolina and a photo ID law that was in effect for a primary election, but not the subsequent general election. Our results suggest that photo ID laws’ differential deterrent effect persists because voters lack information about the changing requirements for voting, creating confusion that deters turnout.
Widespread concern that voter identification laws suppress turnout among racial and ethnic minorities has made empirical evaluations of these laws crucial. But problems with administrative records and survey data impede such evaluations. We replicate and extend Hajnal, Lajevardi, and Nielson’s 2017 article, which concludes that voter ID laws decrease turnout among minorities, using validated turnout data from five national surveys conducted between 2006 and 2014. We show that the results of their article are a product of data inaccuracies, the presented evidence does not support the stated conclusion, and alternative model specifications produce highly variable results. When errors are corrected, one can recover positive, negative, or null estimates of the effect of voter ID laws on turnout, precluding firm conclusions. We highlight more general problems with available data for research on election administration, and we identify more appropriate data sources for research on state voting laws’ effects.