Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

What is the direction of voting by mail?

It was different in 2020, but that doesn’t mean it’s permanently different.

Democratic voters in Texas were more likely to cast their ballots by mail than Republican voters in the last election.

Today, that may sound like a forgone conclusion, but that wasn’t the case four years ago. Absentee ballots, which only certain groups of Texans are eligible to use, have traditionally been a tool utilized by the GOP, and in 2016, counties reported that higher percentages of Republican voters cast absentee ballots than Democratic voters.

The reason for the swap? It came from the top. Experts and political operatives note that President Donald Trump spent months attacking the credibility of mail-in voting to his Republican base while national and state Democrats launched their largest-ever push to support the method as a safe option to vote in the pandemic.

Other factors at play this election season in Texas included an increase in participation by younger voters who lean Democratic, many of them college students living out of state. Democrats also were more likely to take coronavirus risks and precautions more seriously, leading them to look for ways to stay out of the polls during the pandemic, experts on both sides of the aisle said.

In total, Texans cast 1 million absentee ballots before Election Day, up from less than 500,000 in 2016, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

[…]

In November, about 39% of all ballot-by-mail voters had most recently voted in the Democratic primary, compared to about 26% who had most recently voted in the Republican primary, said GOP consultant and data analyst Derek Ryan, who tracks statewide voting trends. The rest did not vote in the primaries, Ryan said. Just over 2 million people voted in each primary in March.

That’s almost a complete flip from 2016, when 41% of people who voted by mail in the general election had voted in the Republican primary, while only 26% had voted in the Democratic primary, Ryan said.

More than 120,000 mail-in voters in November had never voted in a primary or general election before, Ryan said.

Overall, the influx of mail-in votes for Democrats didn’t give them a notable advantage, given that the GOP kept their majorities in state offices.

What it means for the future of participation in mail voting in Texas remains to be seen after an outlier year in which the pandemic led to an election unlike any other.

The story has more data about how voting by mail went in 2020, and quotes a friend of mine who’s a COVID long-hauler and took advantage of voting by mail for the first time this year because her health is now fragile. Some of this data we’ve discussed before, mostly from the daily early voting reports that Derek Ryan was putting out.

My personal sense is that for all the obvious reasons 2020 was mostly an outlier, and will not cause a large change in voting behavior. To the extent that it does cause changes, it will be mostly from the over-65 crowd that is already allowed to vote by mail. There may be some lasting damage to Republican vote by mail efforts, but as that did not appear to have any significant effect on the past election, it’s unlikely to have much effect on future elections. I think there is some risk inherent in a “do most of your voting on Election Day” strategy that hasn’t been discussed, and that’s the greater risk that an exogenous event on Election Day, such as bad weather or physical problems like a sewer overflow, that can have a negative effect on turnout. Not my problem, of course, and if it ever does happen in a way that might affect the outcome of an election, the irony will be so rich it will clog your arteries.

That said, there has been a multi-year effort by Democrats to push voting by mail for eligible voters. The HCDP has been aggressively pushing mail ballot applications to its over-65 voters for several cycles now, and there are similar programs being done by the TDP and other county parties. I don’t see that changing, and it may well be that more people respond to those entreaties in future years, but by its nature this is somewhat limited. The total number of mail ballots returned in Harris County in 2020 was about 180K, making it about 10.8% of all ballots cast last year. In 2016, there were 101K mail ballots cast, which was 7.6% of the total. It’s just not that big a change.

Really, the seismic change in 2020 was the shift to early in-person voting, where nearly as many people voted in 2020 (1,273,936) as in all of 2016 (1,338,898). That was aided by the third week of early voting, which we won’t have going forward barring any changes to the law, as well as the intense interest in that election. That’s a change in behavior that I could see sticking, as was the case with early voting after the 2008 election. Before 2008, it was assumed that less than half the vote came in early. In recent elections before 2020, the general wisdom was that about 70 to 75% of the vote was early (including vote by mail). In 2020, almost 88% of the vote was cast before Election Day. Maybe it won’t be quite that high in 2022 and 2024, but I think the expectation is that early voting is make or break, and Election Day matters that much less. (Which, to be fair, mitigates that risk I spoke of earlier. As we just saw in Georgia, though, if you’re not getting your voters out early, you may not be able to catch up later.)

Even then, this was one year, and who knows what the next election will bring. Also, as discussed elsewhere, this pattern holds much more for even-year elections than odd-year elections. We kind of get the year off in 2021, as there are no city of Houston races to be had, though there are some races of interest elsewhere in the state. If there’s one lesson to be taken from the 2020 voting experience, I say it’s that people liked having options for how and where and when to vote. To the extent that Republicans try to take that away, which remains to be seen, the Dems should be up front about the fact that we like having those options as well, and we think they should be a permanent feature of our elections. Vote how you want, we say.

Related Posts:

One Comment

  1. […] me much. Even in 2020, and even with all of the COVID-driven changes to election procedures, not that many people voted by mail, and the vast majority of those who did were over 65. Those folks will get their vote by mail […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *