- The Washington Times - Monday, July 4, 2016

Allowing voters to show up and cast ballots ahead of Election Day appears to actually reduce participation, but letting them vote by mail or to show up and register on Election Day boosts turnout, the government’s chief research agency said in a new report last week.

The surprising findings by the Government Accountability Office contradict the conventional wisdom in a number of states, which are moving to expand so-called early voting, believing it makes it easier for those who are busy on Election Day to take part in the political process anyway.

But the findings confirm the experiments of states such as Colorado, where voting by mail has become the standard.

Still, the changes affect only the margins, and the main factors in predicting voter turnout are voters’ demographics and whether an election is seen as interesting, GAO analysts said.

“Although states and local election jurisdictions have implemented policies that seek to make voting more convenient, and thus less costly to voters, broad academic research on voter turnout has concluded that individual differences among citizens — such as age and political interest — and the competitiveness of elections are more strongly and consistently associated with the decision to vote than interventions that seek to increase convenience,” the analysts concluded.

They divided states’ experiments into three categories: providing more information, trying to streamline voter registration and opening a broader window for actually voting.

Sending text messages to voters did boost turnout, while the evidence for other options, such as emails or print mailings, was inconclusive.

But there were clear winners on the registration side, with Election Day registration seemingly showing the strongest results.

And when it came to actual voting day practices, allowing absentee ballots or voting by mail were deemed successful at boosting participation.

One mail-vote study said turnout rose by as much as 16 percent, including an 11 percent increase in lower-profile, low-interest elections. But the effects do dissipate after the novelty of voting by mail wears off, that same study concluded.

There was little evidence, however, that early in-person voting helped. Indeed, many studies suggested it tamped down on turnout. One of the studies reviewed by the GAO speculated that allowing in-person early voting saps the “civic energy” that usually surrounds Election Day and complicates parties’ get-out-the-vote efforts.

At the same time, the GAO said its own surveys of election officials found that in-person early voting can reduce the wait times for those who show up on Election Day.

Among other potential changes, some states have made it easy to register to vote online. While there’s an upfront cost to that, states said they’ve seen improved accuracy of their voter rolls: Registrants are required to fill in all the blanks, and officials no longer have to try to decipher illegible handwriting.

Expanding the hours available for voting, and using vote centers, where a person can vote on Election Day without regard to his or her assigned precinct, also appear to be successful.

Overall, voter turnout has dropped slightly over the last 35 years, the GAO said.

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