Ballot drop boxes: Will convenience get you to vote?

The crucial question is whether or not additional ballot boxes actually lead more residents to vote. Or do they merely divert ballots otherwise headed to the postal service?

DESPITE the importance of the last presidential election, voter turnout was typical: four out of 10 Washington residents eligible to vote did not.

Last year, King County sought to improve turnout by increasing the number of its drop boxes from 10 to 43. In the words of King County’s Director of Elections Julie Wise, the purpose was to “make it as easy as possible to exercise the right to vote.”

Interest in the use of drop boxes as alternatives to the U.S. Postal Service peaked last month when Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill requiring counties to install 250 to 275 additional boxes throughout the state.

Drop boxes are preferred by some voters, and this new law will make them more popular still. In King County, one-fourth of all voters used a drop box before last summer’s expansion; after it, more than half did. Under our state’s new law, King County will now double the number of drop-box locations.

The crucial question is whether or not additional boxes actually lead more residents to vote. Or do they merely divert ballots otherwise headed to the USPS?

The three of us, along with Sarah Hampson of the University of Washington Tacoma, and Ben Gonzalez-O’Brien of Highline College, were interested in this question. Working with King County Elections, we studied the relationship between a voter’s distance to their nearest drop box and the likelihood they voted in the 2015 and 2016 elections.

We found that installing more drop boxes does increase voter turnout, but the effects differ by demographic group and type of election.

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