Educating voters about voting by mail
In 2008, in partnership with the San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters, a group of faculty from a variety of programs at Pacific designed and executed a voter education campaign. The education campaign had three primary goals: (1) to reduce voter induced error in elections (e.g., improperly marking a ballot), (2) to reduce polling-place induced error in elections (e.g., improperly enforcing regulations), and (3) increasing voter awareness and positive perceptions of voting by mail.
At this year’s Midwest Political Science Association meeting, Prof. Dari Sylvester and I presented an analysis of the campaign’s effects relative to this last goal. The main question was, did knowledge about and positive perceptions of voting by mail increase as a result of the education campaign?
To assess these impacts, we relied on three waves (in May, July, and November) of random telephone surveys of registered voters conducted as part of the broader project. The surveys asked respondents four questions of interest:
- Who can vote by mail?
- How does one sign up for permanent vote by mail?
- Are there any advantages to voting by mail? Respondents were prompted to provide up to three advantages.
- Are there any disadvantages to voting by mail? Again, respondents were prompted to provide up to three responses.
Using these questions we constructed four variables:
- Who: The respondent correctly identified who could vote by mail (everyone)
- How: The respondent correctly identified how to sign up for permanent vote by mail (a variety of ways)
- Convenience: The respondent identified convenience as an advantage to voting by mail
- Net advantages: The number of advantages identified by the respondent minus the number of disadvantages
The table below presents the change in each of these variables over the three survey waves.
There are a couple of important points that come out of this table. First, people already know a lot about voting by mail. Generally, we expect between 10 to 30 percent of respondents to answer recall questions like these correctly. Here, roughly two-thirds of respondents were able to answer these questions correctly and thought of voting by mail as convenient–even before the education campaign began. As such, there wasn’t a whole lot of educating to do about vote by mail.
Second, while we can identify some statistically significant increases in voter knowledge and perceptions over the course of the education campaign, the effects are relatively small. In part, this is because of the relatively high starting values for each variable. At the same time, though, it is also because relatively few people reported exposure to the campaign in the surveys (and many of those that did report exposure likely weren’t exposed to it). Given the limited reach of the campaign, there was very little educating that could be done–even if people didn’t already know a lot.