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Who Votes by Mail?

There is little reason to believe that mail ballots would uniformly help Democrats in November.

Last Updated: April 14, 2020
Published: April 15, 2020
Who Votes by Mail?
Robyn Beck/Getty

In the past few weeks, President Donald Trump and other Republicans, such as Georgia’s speaker of the House, have argued that expanding vote-by-mail options for the November election would unfairly benefit Democrats. This perception was compounded by the Wisconsin GOP, which resisted easing restrictions on mail balloting in advance of the state’s April 7 election. At the same time, a number of Republican officials and politicians  including the Republican governor of Nebraska  have argued that voting by mail poses no partisan threat.

To test this claim, we analyzed voter-file data from the seven battleground states where any voter who chose to vote by mail in 2016 could do so: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin.  footnote1_hwk10w9 1 Data for Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina come from the registered voter file and absentee data made available by each state’s Board of Elections. The data for Arizona, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin come from data vendor L2 Political.  Each of these states had no-excuse absentee voting in 2016.  footnote2_hzcsc1k 2 L2 Political does not break out in-person absentee voting from mail absentee voting in Minnesota and Wisconsin; the estimates for these states include both types of absentee ballots. The same is true for Maricopa and Pima Counties in Arizona.

Our analysis of these seven states makes clear that there is little reason to believe that mail voting would uniformly help Democrats in November. A report from the Pew Research Center found that voters over 65 and white voters supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton at the highest rates. Mail voting was used more frequently by older voters in the seven states we examined.  footnote3_59aluo2 3 The youngest voters used the option slightly more than middle-aged voters in North Carolina and Georgia, but this was not the case in the other states.  Additionally, in each state we studied, at least two-thirds of all mail ballots were cast by white voters. White voters had the highest rates of voting by mail in three of the seven states and the second highest rate in another three. Latino voters used mail options less than white voters in each of the swing states. In the outlier state, Ohio, all racial/ethnic groups but Latinos cast mail ballots at about the same rate. There, white voters used mail ballots two percentage points less often than Black voters, who had the highest usage rate.

In the table below, we show the share of participants who used vote by mail, broken out by age and race/ethnicity.  footnote4_7w6fmh0 4 Race/ethnicity come from self-reported data in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, and from L2 Political estimates in Arizona, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

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