Andrew Hall - Vote-by-Mail in the 2020 Election: Evidence from Texas
The expansion of vote-by-mail was a major policy issue in the 2020 election and its aftermath. Questions about how much vote-by-mail changed participation and election outcomes this past cycle have animated partisan debates, and also connect to long-running topics in the study of elections concerning why people vote and whether more people would vote if it were easier to do so. In this paper, we offer the first causal analysis of the effect of vote-by-mail in the 2020 general election. We study the state of Texas, where only those aged 65 and older could vote by mail without an excuse. Using administrative records and exploiting this age discontinuity, we find that the ability to vote-by-mail had no appreciable effect on turnout in the 2020 general election. Instead, being old enough to vote by mail almost exclusively encouraged substitution from voting early in person to voting by mail, and had no major effects on the turnout of Democrats vs. Republicans. The results suggest that relatively few voters are mobilized on the basis of the convenience of mail voting even in cases when there are good health reasons to avoid voting in person. Theories of voting that focus on the costs of voting, and arguments for reform based on the mobilizing effects of convenience voting, will need to grapple with this surprising non-effect of vote-by-mail on turnout, at least for the case of Texas in the teeth of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Andrew Hall is a Professor of Political Science and, by courtesy, a Professor of Political Economy at the Graduate School of Business. He is the co-director of the Democracy & Polarization Lab and a Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. Currently, Hall’s research group is focused on understanding how to preserve democracy and safely administer elections in the time of COVID-19, how to reduce or manage political polarization, and how to restore bipartisan faith in democratic government.