Vote-by-mail lag

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Watching the election on Super Tuesday it was interesting to see the enormous gap between Clinton and Obama at the beginning of the night and watching it narrow as more results were counted. Given that these early returns showed high percentages for Edwards, who ended at 4.1%, I speculate that they reflected early vote-by-mail/absentee votes. This matches up with pundit predictions that the early votes (pre-Obama surge) would be substantially more for Clinton.

Oregon already conducts all their elections by mail and according to Wikipedia, all but two of Washington state's counties are vote-by-mail. It's also one not uncommon reaction to concerns about the security of electronic voting systems (I'm not saying it's a good reaction.) As we're seeing here, one interesting impact of vote-by-mail is that it significantly affects the election timeline in two ways:

  • It increases latency because people need to decide on how they're going to vote well in advance of the election (even if there's a way to retract your ballot, it seems doubtful that most people will do so unless conditions really change.)
  • It decreases the temporal coherency of the election. In a standard election, everyone votes on the same day, but in vote-by-mail, people submit their ballots over the days and weeks before.

This seems like a small change, but I'd expect it to really modify required electoral strategies. A last minute attack ad is a lot less effective if people have already voted, and if there's no distinct election day, then it's hard to know when to time your ad buys/media events, etc. In general, it seems like a mass transition to vote-by-mail would greatly increase electoral intertia. Whether that's a good or bad thing depends on you're the frontrunner.

Obviously, this is pretty handwavy. If any EG readers know of some more formal analysis of, please let me know.


100% vote by mail, and all states vote on the same day. No more Iowa/NH bullshit influencing the rest of the country (2,988,046 + 1,315,828)/305,986,357 = 1.4%


For the formal election analysis of the impact of vote by mail in Oregon, you want the special election editions of APSR, PS, or Political Analysis. Andrew Gelman from Columbia may cover this in his forthcoming pop book on the statistics of elections, which you will probably enjoy.

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