Absentee ballot drop boxes at West Hartford Town Hall. If they haven't been mailed, voters can return the ballots in person in the Town ClerkÕs office, or via the drop boxes. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Do more people vote if they have the option to cast an absentee ballot?

That’s one of the issues in the current debates in the Connecticut General Assembly over whether to allow no-excuse absentee ballots in the fall and whether to send a constitutional amendment to voters that would give everyone the option to vote via absentee ballot. A look at the last two presidential elections suggests that while people who voted in 2020 but opted not to in 2016 were more likely to use the absentee ballot, the overall effect on turnout may not be substantial.

A Connecticut Mirror analysis of voting data from 2016 and 2020 shows that among all residents who were eligible to vote in both of those presidential elections, over 400,000 more cast ballots in 2020, boosting the state’s turnout rate to 79.7%, about three percentage points higher than in 2016.

Of those 400,000, over 149,000 — or nearly 37% — opted to use the absentee ballot, an option available to them in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Of all 2020 voters, about 29% voted absentee.

But research does not suggest that absentee voting significantly increased voter turnout in 2020, said Greg Huber, a professor of political science at Yale University. The fact that voters had the chance to vote absentee and chose to do so does not necessarily mean that they wouldn’t have voted at all without the option.

Even though absentee voting may not have affected turnout, there are reasons to support expanding access to the voting process on principle alone, said Andrew Hall, professor of political science at Stanford University. “A lot of election administrators say this, I think they’re absolutely right: You want to facilitate access to voting … as a core value,” Hall said.

Turnout, absentee voting and partisanship

Examining the relationship between turnout and absentee voting seems destined to be one of those interesting social science research questions that can be debated — but never definitively answered. Key to the issue is the “what-if” scenario, what researchers call the counterfactual: Would some people have voted at all without the option? Aside from polling, which comes with its own pitfalls, it’s impossible to know for certain.

“Did more people’s vote because they can vote by mail?” Hall wanted to know, and Texas presented him with a real-life controlled experiment in 2020 that seemed perfectly suited to modeling an answer: It allowed those 65 and older to vote via absentee ballot without needing to produce an excuse, while those 64 and under did not have the option.

“These people are all in the same state. They’ve got the same ballot with the same people on the ballot, everything is essentially the same, except that one group has this option to vote by mail and the other doesn’t,” Hall said.

Though 65-year-olds embraced absentee voting, Hall found that the measure was associated with no increase in turnout when compared to 64-year-olds— even along partisan lines. Democrats were no more likely to profit from access to the option than Republicans were, a counterintuitive proposition in an election cycle where mail voting has been a distinctly partisan phenomenon and a pronounced “blue shift” made for a dramatic denouement to an extended election night.

Connecticut is no exception to these partisan effects. This polarized response was urged by the former president’s inflammatory rhetoric questioning the integrity of the absentee ballot voting process. “My guess is that it’s largely a 2020 phenomenon, but not entirely,” Hall said.

Lower use of absentee ballot voting among Republican voters was already clear in the primary in Connecticut. But unlike the primary, the November election did not see lower overall Republican turnout. In other words, Republicans were less likely to vote by absentee ballot than Democrats, but they posted higher turnout rates than their Democratic counterparts anyway.

“There doesn’t appear to be any partisan advantage in moving to more expansive all-mail elections,” Huber said. “I think that’s an important thing to tell people worried about that, that it might advantage one party over another.”

The “substitution effect”

Though Democratic voters made more use of absentee ballot voting, “Do we really believe Democrats would have been like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t vote because I can’t vote absentee?’” Huber asked. “There’s zero evidence that that’s the case.”

Hall and Huber call this the “substitution effect”: Voters in Connecticut have always had the ability to cast their vote in person. The state also allows election day registration.

“People really like it, they tend to adopt it, if they’re able to, but it’s secondary to the reasons they decide whether or not to vote,” Hall said.

An analysis of the voting behavior of those who did request absentee ballots shows that they were more likely to vote in recent elections than the average Connecticut resident, lending credence to the idea that they are, generally speaking, enthusiastic voters.

Beyond turnout: Should Connecticut implement absentee ballot voting anyway?

Though absentee ballot voting may not significantly increase voter participation in elections, that doesn’t mean that states shouldn’t implement the policy — particularly if it proves popular among residents, Hall said. “You don’t want to erect artificial barriers to people voting.”

On the other hand, there is a case for preserving the status quo since people are, generally speaking, familiar with existing processes, Hall said. “I don’t think it has to be the case that all these changes are necessary.”

From a financial perspective, “off the top of my head, going forward, if there were to be no-excuse absentee ballots in CT, there is no way to know who will bear the costs of the following items: mailing out AB applications (if it happens at all), cost of postage of AB applications to and from voters, cost of postage of ABs to and from voters, a mail house (if that happens at all), additional ballot drop boxes, or increased costs for the towns associated with more absentee ballots (if any),” wrote Gabe Rosenberg, spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of the State.

“COVID dramatically changed the 2020 landscape, so this is not an accurate representation of what this would cost going forward, and several policy decisions would have to be made by the legislature before any costs could be projected into the future,” he added. “Generally speaking, election administration is paid for on the town level, and all the costs listed below were extra resources to help with increased costs due to COVID and increased AB volume.”

In the 2020 election, 670,000 Connecticut residents exercised their right to vote via absentee ballot, representing around 29% of all registered voters. The pandemic and fears of catching COVID at the polls would likely have made the option more popular last year than it would have otherwise been, so those numbers are not necessarily reflective of the appetite for the option in the future. But the measure’s popularity could be tested before voters directly via a ballot question.

That depends on the fate of a proposal presently being considered by the House. If it passes through both chambers with a supermajority, voters can decide if they want the absentee voting option in 2022, Rosenberg said.

If it passes with a simple majority, the legislature can take up the question again in 2022, and if it should pass again, voters will then see the amendment on the ballot.

“In Connecticut, voters face some of the biggest obstacles outside of the south,” blared a Center for Public Integrity headline last year as it pointed out that the state does not presently allow early voting either. A separate initiative on the early voting question passed without a super majority in 2019, and its passage through both chambers is essentially guaranteed. It will likely be on the ballot in 2022.

The House on Tuesday is expected to take up the question of whether to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would allow no-excuse absentee voting.

Kasturi was CT Mirror’s data reporter. She is a May 2020 graduate of the Columbia Journalism School’s master’s program in data journalism and holds a degree in comparative literature from Brown University, where she was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. Prior to joining CT Mirror, Kasturi interned for publications in India.

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