Previous research on vote by mail has generally supported the argument that the vote-by-mail format increases turnout, although not for every type of election. My previous research on the overall turnout in 61 Oregon elections from 1980 to 2016 shows that vote by mail increases turnout modestly, particularly in special and presidential elections. Often involving one vacant seat or one ballot measure, many special elections are what political scientists call “low-stimulus elections.” In such a situation, even politically aware voters might find it less important to go to the polling place for a single issue, but the vote-by-mail format makes it easier for them to vote on even one ballot measure or race. Presidential elections are high-stimulus events, and they typically motivate first-time voters. Those inexperienced voters might have had difficulty locating their polling place in traditional elections, but have no such problems under vote by mail.
Vote by mail is the simplest way to avoid repeating the nightmare of Wisconsin’s primary. States should take care in adopting it, so that protections against voter fraud and undue influence are available. But legislators in Wisconsin and elsewhere do not have to invent these protections as they go along, as Oregon had to; they can copy what five states have already done. This can be done in a few months, and certainly in time for the November election. Given our current health crisis, we have no other choice.
The switch doesn’t have to be permanent. Once the pandemic has waned, state lawmakers might choose to return to their former system—but they might well find that the public prefers voting by mail.