Absentee ballots are a long-standing American tradition, yet efforts to expand voter access to mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic have been disparaged by some individuals on the right.

The R Street Institute’s latest policy paper explains why conservatives should embrace sensible measures to expand absentee balloting and rebuts the idea that the practice provides any partisan advantage. These trusted, age-old election practices are consistent with conservative principles of fairness, security, cost-effectiveness, freedom of choice and decency toward the elderly, infirmed and physically disabled.

“The overwhelming evidence indicates that well-designed and -implemented absentee voting is safe, secure and very popular with the public,” said Kevin Kosar, vice president for research partnerships at the R Street Institute, who co-authored the paper with Marc Hyden, director of state government affairs; and Steven Greenhut, resident senior fellow and western region director.

The paper explains:

  • Absentee balloting dates back to the Civil War. When many troops faced the specter of not being able to exercise their right to vote, Confederate and Union states ratified measures to permit their soldiers to vote in absentia.
  • Voters are increasingly voting absentee and by mail. In recent years, voting absentee has comprised between one-fifth and one-third of all votes cast.
  • Absentee and mail voting do not favor either party. There is no merit to the claim that mail voting greatly favors Democrats. Academic evidence confirms that absentee voting is partisan-neutral. Oregon, Colorado and California are just a few of the states that elected Republicans to the House and Senate after relying heavily on mail voting.
  • Voters want more ways to vote—not fewer. More than three-quarters of voters want the freedom to vote by mail. Support for voting by absentee ballot has risen among Republican women over the past two years, and GOP voters living in states where these forms of voting are common are very supportive of it. On the other hand, trends continue to show that far fewer people are going to the polls on election day, even before the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Older voters rely on mail and absentee voting. In 2018, 30 percent of Americans 65 or older who cast votes used absentee ballots or mail voting.
  • No form of voting is immune to fraud, but mail voting has proven exceptionally secure. For example, Oregon’s absentee voter fraud rate since 2000—when it began primarily conducting its elections by mail—is 0.000004 percent. Washington state enacted a similar voting system in 2012, and there have been zero proven cases of voter fraud in the state.
  • Ballot harvesting and mail voting are not the same practice. Conservatives are right to denounce “ballot harvesting,” the practice legalized by California in 2016. However, most states do not—and should not—authorize it.
  • Absentee voting can help states save money in the long run. Evidence suggests that increased reliance on absentee voting is a cost-saving measure for state and local governments once a community bears the initial costs of setting up the practice.
  • Conservative policymakers with governing responsibilities have expanded access to absentee ballots and mail voting. Governors in Nebraska, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Alaska and other states have either expanded the practice or debunked concerns about it.

Read the full policy paper, “The Conservative Case for Expanded Access to Absentee Ballots,” here.