How Much Would Changing Mail-In Voting Rules Really Matter?

How much would more mail-in voting really effect Texas' elections.
To hear Republicans tell it, allowing a temporary expansion of mail-in voting in Texas would doom their party to a fate much like the one suffered by Texas Democrats over the last two decades. Let people stay home and vote with a pen and a stamp, rather than heading to a polling place during a pandemic, and the GOP will get screwed out of an election that's rightfully theirs. Just listen to Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

"There is no reason — capital N, capital O — no reason that anyone under 65 should be able to say 'I am afraid to go vote,'" Patrick told Fox News last week. "Have they been to a grocery store? Have they been to Walmart? Have they been to Lowe’s? Have they been to Home Depot? Have they been anywhere? Have they been afraid to go out of their house? This is a scam by the Democrats to steal the election."

Not that everything the lieutenant governor says isn't uttered in perfectly good faith, but his idea is one that should be evaluated. Sure Patrick, President Donald Trump, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and their Republican brethren think more mail-in ballots is good for Democrats and bad for their political futures, but is it true?

The politics data site FiveThirtyEight, a publication far more adept at number crunching than the Observer, took a swing at the question earlier this month, looked at several studies on mail-in voting access and partisanship and came to the following conclusions:

"In short: voting by mail is more convenient for some voters but more difficult for others, and these conflicting factors appear to cancel each other out, dampening any partisan advantage. Moreover, the vast majority of nonvoters don’t participate not because it’s too inconvenient to vote, but because voting isn’t a habit for them. Maybe they don’t care about politics, maybe they don’t think their vote matters, maybe they don’t like any of the candidates, or maybe it’s some combination of all of the above. But the bottom line is that these voters’ decision to vote depends more on whether somebody around them can motivate them to vote, not whether they are able to vote by mail or in person."
Rice University political scientist Mark Jones told the Observer earlier this month that some of the research that exists about the partisan effects of mail-in voting isn't exactly applicable to Texas, because the states that have been studied haven't taken steps, like Texas has, to suppress voter turnout.

If Texas were to suddenly adopt a system like Oregon's, for instance, and mail every registered voter a ballot at the beginning of election season, Jones thinks Democrats would experience an electoral benefit.

The thing is, that's not the ground the state's current legal fight over mail-in voting is being fought on.

"I don't think it really advantages one party over another and maybe even helps the Republican Party a little bit." — Mark Jones

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Texas Democrats and voting rights groups have asked state and federal courts to allow any Texan that feels voting by mail might help him or her stay healthy during the pandemic to ask for one. That's it. They aren't asking to get a ballot mailed to everyone in the state.

In practice, Texas' electoral process will function similarly to the way it functioned in 2016, even if the state prevails in court. If you're willing to check the box marked "disability" on the form that asks why you need a mail-in ballot, you likely aren't going to have a problem getting one.

The downside to the system is that you have to know how the game is played to participate.

"You just have to know that if you check disabled, that's fine," Jones said. "You will be sent a mail ballot and there's not going to be any questions asked. ... The difficulty is, you have to read between the lines to know that's actually the case."

In a primary, when the electorate is usually more sophisticated about the electoral process, that's not as big a problem as it would be in the general election, when voters who participate less frequently are likely to be confused by the mixed messages they receive from county and state officials.

As long as Texans hoping to vote by mail have to make a formal request for their ballot, Jones says, mail-in voting won't be a huge advantage for Democrats.

"I don't think it really advantages one party over another and maybe even helps the Republican Party a little bit," Jones says.