Early voting and vote-by-mail (VBM) have been gaining traction in the election industry since Texas implemented in-person absentee voting in 1991. In 2000, Oregon became the first state to fully implement VBM in statewide elections. Since then, Washington and Colorado have followed suit and effectuated statewide VBM in 2011 and 2013 respectively. According to The Elections Assistance Commission, the total number of citizens to vote through vote-by-mail or some form of early voting has more than doubled between 2004 and 2016, with 16 states having over 50% of their votes cast using one of these methods. Currently, 37 states plus D.C. allow some form of early voting or conduct elections by VBM and it is possible that by 2020, non-precinct voter methods will only increase. This great surge in popularity of VBM and early voting is not a coincidence, but rather is a product of the numerous recognized benefits they can provide both voters and state elections offices.
Statistics from vote by mail states show a generally higher voter turnout rate than in states that require an excuse for early voting, or don’t provide a vote-by-mail option at all. In the 2016 presidential election, the three entirely vote-by-mail states were in the top 12 in overall voter turnout percentage with Colorado, Oregon, and Washington respectively receiving 71.3%, 68.3%, and 65.7% of voter turnout. All three states exceeded the US average of 59.7% voter turnout. This past mayoral election in Anchorage, Alaska was the first completely vote-by-mail municipal election in the city's history. It broke the voter turnout record of 71,099, previously set in 2012. The original record was surpassed on April 6 by more than 6,000 votes, as the final tally of votes cast was 77,766, an increase in turnout of almost 9%.
While critics of VBM may denigrate it as a fad with little data showing its turnout benefits over the long-term, a study conducted in Switzerland between 1970-2005 concluded that VBM raised voter turnout by 4.1%. Both early voting and vote-by-mail eliminate the need for voters to go through the often tedious and inconvenient steps needed on Election Day. Voters don’t need to take time off from work to go vote, there are fewer issues with Voter IDs by validating voter credentials during the registration phase, and there is no need to scramble to find their specific polling location on Election Day.
These voting tactics provide voters with the time to contemplate every contest on the ballot in the comfort of their own homes. With the additional time afforded by VBM, voters can make more thoughtful decisions on each race and are less likely to skip over contests they are unfamiliar with or make mistakes on the ballot.
Early voting and VBM afford a safety net for voters who are incapable or unwilling to go to polling locations on Election Day due to the commute, the wait to cast their ballots, or the inability to take time off. Younger voters who might be less reliable to vote on Election Day due to prior commitments (such as school, work, or extracurriculars) have ample time to turn their ballots in on a day of their choice before the due date. On top of this, both early voting and VBM shorten or eliminate lines on Election Day, improve poll worker performance, and allow for the identification and adjustment of registration mistakes.
Voting early and VBM are also advantageous to registered voters with disabilities. The two methods give disabled voters the option of voting at a location of their choice using their personal accessible devices, and ensuring that they have all the time they need to make their selections without the added pressure and fuss of the Election Day masses.
Both voting methods can potentially save counties a substantial amount of money by eliminating the need for them to hire as many Election Day workers and lowering the need to purchase as many voting systems as they generally would to support a full Election Day crowd.
Due to the copious benefits outlined above, VBM and early voting have gained momentum around the country, with each new election bringing an increase in the percentage of ballots cast using some adaptation of these methods. VBM and early voting are no longer just a trend, but instead have become a foundational pillar of the American election system.