Director of Fiscal and Economic Research
Expanding permanent vote-by-mail options to all eligible voters while retaining in-person voting would likely increase turnout without giving any political party an advantage.
Illinois could see over 200,000 more votes in its general elections as a result of expanded vote-by-mail services, but the higher turnout will not necessarily give an advantage to either major party and might yield better-informed voters.
Recent legislation gives Illinoisans the ability to choose to automatically receive mail-in ballots for all future primary and general elections with a single application, rather than having to request a mail-in ballot before each election. Illinois’ move to allow permanent voting by mail is largely similar to the no-excuse absentee voting system that has been in place since 2005. Now those who wish to vote by mail will only have to apply once instead of ahead of each election.
The change can be expected to raise voter turnout, because giving voters more consistent options on how to cast their ballots makes it easier for more Illinoisans to participate in each election.
In theory, giving voters more options for casting a ballot lowers the costs associated with voting. Empirical evidence from U.S. states that implemented vote-by-mail systems mostly backs up the theory.
New research shows states that automatically send eligible voters mail-in ballots while still providing in-person voting centers have seen an increase in voter turnout of 2.1 to 2.2 percentage points. If Illinois’ permanent vote-by-mail initiative were to experience similar results, voter turnout in Illinois would likely increase by 206,000 to 216,000 voters in each general election.
Should Illinois’ permanent vote-by-mail system be largely adopted by voters, or the state were to begin sending mail-in ballots to all voters while still allowing Illinoisans to cast their ballots in person, Illinois would likely benefit from an increase in voter participation.
Some studies even suggest mailing ballots to all voters could yield even larger increases in voter turnout, with some purporting an increase in voter turnout of 4% in the 2020 election. Studies of states that conduct all-mail voting report an increase in voter turnout of 8% to 10%.
Regardless of the magnitude of the change, providing voters with additional options for casting their ballots should serve to increase voter participation, especially as long as traditional voting methods remain in place.
Expanding voting options has been shown to encourage participation among lower-propensity voting groups such as young people, blue-collar workers, voters with less educational attainment and minority voters. Despite disparate turnout effects among different groups, allowing universal vote by mail does not appear to increase either major party’s vote share. One plausible explanation is that voting by mail allows voters to research the items on their ballot, leading to more informed choices.
Reforms to make voting easier have gained popularity in many states in recent decades. Illinois’ push for a permanent vote-by-mail option is just the latest development in expanded voting options for Illinois residents. In 2005 Illinois adopted early-voting measures to allow residents to cast their ballots ahead of Election Day, while in 2009 Illinois adopted no-excuse absentee voting that allows any resident to request a ballot via mail.
While permanent vote by mail was largely opposed by Republicans, who alleged expanding vote-by-mail options was politically motivated and designed to give a partisan advantage to Democrats in future elections, the evidence shows neither party inherently benefits from mail voting.
Republicans also raised concerns about the integrity of mail-in ballots and potential for vote fraud. Studies consistently find there is no evidence mail ballots increase electoral fraud. Still, those who have reservations about voting by mail will have the option to cast their ballot in person on Election Day.
With the June 28 primary election rapidly approaching, Illinois voters should begin making plans for how they will be casting their ballots.
Important dates to remember:
July 12 – Last day election authorities will accept mail-in ballots that are postmarked on or before Election Day, June 28.
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