How Did Absentee Voting Affect the 2020 U.S. Election?

Source: Jesse Yoder, Cassandra Handan-Nader, Andrew Myers,Tobias Nowacki, Daniel M. Thompson, Jennifer A. Wu,Chenoa Yorgason, and Andrew B. Hall, Stanford University, Democracy & Polarization Lab, Working Paper No. 21 -01 March 2021

The 2020 U.S. election saw high turnout, a huge increase in absentee voting, and brought unified Democratic control at the federal level—yet, contrary to conventional wisdom, these facts do not imply that vote-by-mail increased turnout or had partisan effects. Using nationwide data, we find that states newly implementing no-excuse absentee voting for 2020 did not see larger increases in turnout than states that did not. Focusing on a natural experiment in Texas, we find that 65-year-olds turned out at nearly the same rate as 64-year-olds, even though 65-year-olds voted absentee at much higher rates than 64-year-olds because they could do so without having to provide an excuse. Being old enough to vote no-excuse absentee did not substantially increase Democratic turnout relative to Republican turnout, as the increase in Democratic absentee voting was offset by decreases in Democratic in-person voting. Together, the results suggest that no-excuse absentee voting mobilized relatively few voters and had at most a muted partisan effect despite the historic pandemic. Voter interest appears to be far more important in driving turnout.