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The Seattle Times Says "Voting by Mail Doesn't Increase Turnout" in King County. Is That True? Does It Matter?

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The Seattle Times recently covered the release of a report examining the impact of King County's 2006 switch to voting by mail.

The Times' takeaway? Vote by mail doesn't increase turnout, even though that was supposedly a goal when the County Council supported the switch 5 years ago.

Read just a little further, though, and the answer isn't as clear as the headline and lede would suggest. Comparing off-year elections in 2005 and 2009, the report found that turnout was about the same - just over 56 percent. Between 2006 and 2010, however, turnout was up almost 5 percent - from 65.3 to about 71 percent. The article suggests (correctly, I would add) that other factors may have contributed to the increase - but that doesn't mean that vote by mail wasn't a factor.

Furthermore, the article (if not the headline) highlights the real story: namely, that King County's vote-counting accuracy has become impeccable during the vote by mail era:

The number of mail ballots received but not counted in a general election dropped from 51 in 2006 to the single digits in 2007 and none in either 2009 or 2010, the report says.

Accuracy improved even as the number of general-election mail ballots received went from 395,531 in 2005 to 786,461 in 2010.

Just as significant, this increase in accuracy did not increase the burden on taxpayers - overall costs remained constant even as the County retooled its election process thanks to decreased personnel costs as the result of de-emphasizing precinct-based poll workers.

The King County report is a really big deal in the ongoing discussion about the expansion of non-precinct place voting across the nation. Here's hoping that going forward policymakers, observers and reporters alike can look beyond turnout and focus on equally (if not more) important factors like accuracy and cost when evaluating changes to the election process in communities across America.

2 Comments


  • The Times article use of the word "accuracy" might give the impression that there was evidence presented in the report that the votes were tallied correctly for the candidates. There is no such evidence in the report.

    The report correctly uses the phrase "accuracy of reconciliation" of the number of ballots to describe the data. In addition, I did not see in the report an accounting of the number of ballots that were not counted due to being received late, lack of proper signature, etc.

  • Exactly the point, Doug: the point is not turnout, it's what other administrative costs (or benefits) these alternative systems provide. If turnout effects were negative, then OK, we have a problem. But the systems should also not be oversold.

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