voting by mail

Making Voting More Convenient May Help Democrats After All

Election officials assist voters at a polling location during the Senate runoff elections in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 5, 2021. Photo: Dustin Chambers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There’s been a simmering debate for months now as to whether liberalized voting-by-mail and other forms of “convenience voting” really did help Democrats in 2020. To put it another way, the question is whether current state-level Republican efforts to make voting-by-mail and/or in-person early voting more difficult make any political sense, particularly since there’s a lot of evidence prior to 2020 that Republican voters were just as (or more) likely than Democratic voters to avail themselves of more flexible voting arrangements.

Now new Census data on 2020 turnout patterns has become available, and the Washington Post’s Philip Bump gives us a fresh clue to the answer of this question:

[T]urnout was up from 2016 across the board; for nearly every individual year of age, turnout was higher in 2020 than in 2016. But it increased more among younger age groups. On average, turnout was up 8.6 points for the 18-to-24 age group, up 6 points among those 25 to 44, up 4.2 points for those 45 to 64 and up 3.7 points for those 65 and older.

Younger voters, and particularly the youngest voters, skew Democratic, in part because more of them are non-white than in older age cohorts. But when the Census-takers explored why voters did not show up in the 2020 elections, it becomes obvious that convenience is especially important to the youngsters:

The bureau asked those who reported not voting (all of this data is self-reported, by the way, an important consideration) why they hadn’t done so. One of the response categories was that the respondent was too busy or had scheduling conflicts. Among those under 25, about 1 in 6 cited this reason. Among those 65 and older, only about 2 percent did.

This makes intuitive sense when you consider the number of younger voters who have complicated school-work schedules, or are away from their home precincts, or have the sorts of jobs that don’t necessarily accommodate time off to vote. They also by definition tend to be less experienced voters, who accordingly may feel they need more time to figure out how and for whom to vote.

This is a key element of the push from the left for things like mail-in balloting (to reduce the need to figure out a polling place) or expanded voting hours (to avoid schedule conflicts). Fixing the obstacles young voters face means more young voters and more Democratic votes.

Some observers may wonder why we are still debating this topic. Didn’t Donald Trump’s endless denunciation of voting-by-mail offer pretty convincing evidence that it did matter? Perhaps, but there was another reason for Trump’s gambit. He wanted to convince Republicans not to vote by mail because he knew in-person ballots would typically be counted first, and was planning to contest a defeat on grounds that later-counted mail ballots were actually fraudulent, added to the tally by crooked Democrat election officials in big (and majority-Black) urban centers. Had he organized an election coup more carefully, he might have even gotten away with it. But it now seems the furious opposition to convenience voting he made a core MAGA crusade might have been justified by simple Republican self-interest.

Making Voting More Convenient May Help Democrats After All