Absentee ballots: It's easier to vote, so why aren't more people voting?

About one-quarter of the electorate used absentee ballots in the 2008 election. But the convenience of mailing it in hasn't done much to boost turnout.

Mark Gibson/
The convenience of mailing in an absentee ballot hasn't done much to boost voter turnout.

Election day is now less than two months away. Have you voted yet?

Just kidding. But absentee ballots and early voting are an increasingly common aspect of US politics. About one-quarter of the 2008 presidential vote was cast via these convenience methods.

Did you know, however, that there’s little evidence that making it easier to vote boosts the number of people voting? Plus, the practice varies wildly across the country. Some states (Alaska, California) send absentee ballots to all who ask. Others (we’re looking at you, Rhode Island) require wannabe absentees to have a valid excuse.

“Today the United States is a patchwork of different voting systems,” concludes American Enterprise Institute scholar John C. Fortier in his book “Absentee and Early Voting: Trends, Promises, and Perils.”

The first US absentee ballots were cast in the presidential election of 1864. Nineteen of the 25 Union states passed laws allowing them so that Civil War soldiers fighting far from their homes weren’t disenfranchised. But in peacetime, mail-in ballots remained a tiny portion of votes cast.

Then California changed everything. In 1978, the Golden State adopted no-excuse-needed absentee voting. Other states began to follow suit, dropping requirements that notaries or other witnesses sign the ballots.

Convenience voting jumped from about 4 percent or 5 percent of ballots cast in the 1970s to 22 percent in the 2004 election. The 2008 vote showed another 2 to 3 percent increase.

Not all states are hotbeds of the genre. Twenty-four, plus the District of Columbia, have low absentee voting rates. Many are in the Northeast: Rhode Island has only a 4.4 percent absentee vote rate.

But the West is different. Oregon, with mail-in votes, is essentially all-absentee. Washington State has about a 68 percent absentee vote rate. California’s is 33 percent.

Experts debate whether making it easier to vote increases the number of people voting.

“At best, studies show a very small turnout effect, derived more from slightly better retention of habitual voters than from attraction of new voters,” writes Mr. Fortier.

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