Voter turnout initiatives

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Disparity Rating  
Disparity rating: Potential to decrease disparities

Strategies with this rating have the potential to decrease or eliminate disparities between subgroups. Rating is suggested by evidence, expert opinion or strategy design.

Health Factors  
Date last updated

Voter turnout initiatives are efforts to increase voter participation by making voting options more convenient and more accessible. Voter turnout initiatives can include get-out-the-vote campaigns that share election information through door-to-door canvassing, phone calls from campaign staff or automated calls, mailed reminders and resources, or electronic text and email messages. Early in-person voting, vote-by-mail, or adding polling locations and expanding voting hours are often part of efforts to make voting more convenient1. Vote-by-mail, also known as absentee ballots and mail-in ballots, can be returned by mail or in secure drop boxes, often located at polling places. Voters complete ballots at home and have time to research ballot requirements and candidates while filling out the ballot2. State governments may pass no-excuse absentee voting policies in which voters can apply for absentee ballots without providing a reason (e.g., overseas military service) and permanent absentee voting, in which voters will automatically receive all future ballots by mail3.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased voting

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Increased political participation

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that voter turnout initiatives such as get-out-the-vote campaigns4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, early in-person voting11, 12, 13, and vote-by-mail, which includes absentee ballots14, 15, 16, increase voting.

Get-out-the-vote campaigns that share election information and encourage voter participation, rather than promote political candidates or partisan messages, increase voting4, 9. Get-out-the-vote campaigns staffed and run by volunteers increase voting5, 8, and are cost-effective when calls are brief, non-partisan, and feature some personalization5. Low cost outreach methods such as texts and direct mail reminders can increase voting6, 7. A California-based get-out-the-vote campaign with door-to-door canvassing, direct mail, and text messages found voting can increase, especially when combined with voting reminders via text in late October6. A Chicago-based get-out-the-vote campaign that sent postcards and text messages also increased voter turnout; when messages included information about voter registration, turnout increased even more7. Door-to-door canvassing as part of a get-out-the-vote campaign can encourage political participation and increase in-person voter turnout, in some cases more than mailed ballots, for those who value the social reward of being seen doing their civic duty by voting in-person10.

Early in-person voting is generally available in the weeks leading up to an election to make voting more convenient and in some states, such as Minnesota, early voting may begin up to 46 days prior to election day12. Early in-person voting has been shown to increase voting among working age adults, parents of young children, women, Democrats, and Independents12. On-site early voting can also increase voting and political participation on Native reservations11. A 2018 Florida voting reform allowed early in-person voting at public colleges and universities; afterwards, young registrants were more likely to vote, to vote early, and to increase their political participation, compared to peers in counties without early in-person voting13. A Georgia-based study suggests that ads and outreach to promote early in-person voting may increase voter turnout and political participation17. Early in-person voting may increase voter turnout in high density areas when additional voting locations are made available1.

Voting-by-mail with absentee or mail-in ballots can increase voting and political participation for those living at a distance from their polling location18. Many states and counties created more flexible policies for vote-by-mail for the 2020 presidential election to reduce public health risks and provide a safe alternative to voting in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic19. Some states and counties automatically sent mail-in ballots to all registered voters. These counties experienced higher political and voter participation than counties which did not mail ballots to residents, and there was no evidence of a partisan advantage14. Despite commonly shared narratives that vote-by-mail gives an advantage to certain political parties over others, there is evidence that universal, mandatory, vote-by-mail efforts increase overall voter turnout and political participation without partisan effects15, 16. Mail-in ballots can also be deposited in drop boxes; drop boxes may increase voting most effectively when located near residential areas, workplaces, or schools20.

Vote-by-mail initiatives must be implemented carefully and include clear instructions regarding ballot completion and return timelines; voters who have not voted-by-mail previously are more likely to have their mailed ballots rejected, generally due to a signature defect or late arrival21. This inexperience penalty varies by race and age, with minorities, the youngest, and oldest voters more likely to have ballots rejected, along with those who are not members of a major political party21. Implementation decisions can also reduce the effectiveness of vote-by-mail or ballot drop box voting initiatives, as seen in Texas after the governor restricted each county to only one secure ballot drop-off location, dramatically increasing the travel time costs to return absentee ballots, with the greatest impacts on voters identifying as Asian, Black, and Hispanic22.

Studies have shown that when the distance to polling locations increases, voter turnout decreases as it becomes more challenging to reach the polls18, 23. Poll closures and consolidation have a disproportionate impact on voters identifying as racial or ethnic minorities23. In Milwaukee, WI during the April 2020 primary, many polling locations were closed in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, which dramatically reduced overall voter turnout, especially turnout by Black voters24 and other racial minorities25. Consolidating polling locations into vote centers may be less expensive to run; however, a model-based study of vote centers in Texas shows this may increase the distance voters need to travel to cast their ballots, which may reduce voter turnout for midterm elections, especially in rural counties with Hispanic voters26. A North Carolina-based study found that changing polling locations creates additional search costs for individuals, who then need to discover, locate, and travel to new polling places, which can also reduce the likelihood of voting in general elections27.

Available evidence indicates that people with better physical and mental health have greater civic participation, including voting, volunteering, and membership in community groups and organizations, such as recreational teams or community gardens28, 29. Experts recommend encouraging civic participation from a young age to build a lifelong commitment to community engagement29. Poor physical and mental health can increase social isolation and may reduce civic participation. Individuals who experience negative health outcomes at a young age may be less likely to participate in civic engagement activities later in life. Additional research is needed to assess how individuals’ civic participation can support improvements to community infrastructure and policies that promote community health, which may in turn increase health equity28. Evidence suggests that civic participation may be associated with improved self-reported health, well-being, and emotional health; increased physical activity; and a greater sense of community29.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential to decrease disparities: supported by some evidence.

There is some evidence that voter turnout initiatives have the potential to reduce disparities in access to voting and political participation11, 43, 44. Communities with high poverty rates have lower voter participation rates1; voting-by-mail may reduce disparities in voting access for those with low incomes and without cars or access to reliable public transportation to and from polling locations45. Black and Hispanic voters experience greater disparities in voter access, including longer distances to travel to polling locations, lack of efficient transit options, and longer wait times at polling places43. A study of voting wait times on Election Day 2016 suggests that residents of Black neighborhoods waited nearly 30% longer to vote than residents of white neighborhoods and were nearly 75% more likely to wait for over 30 minutes to vote46. In a Denver-based study of municipal elections in which all registered voters were automatically sent mail-in ballots, greater numbers of Hispanic and Black voters participated than during in-person elections44.

Native populations have suppressed voter turnout and high levels of government distrust and disenfranchisement following centuries of broken treaties and violence; however, when early in-person voting is made available on Native reservations, it can increase voting and political participation11. Typically, early in-person voting sites are more available in neighborhoods with residents that are college-educated, older, and/or Democrat-leaning, and are less available in neighborhoods with majority Black residents47. An Ohio-based study suggests that Black residents voted early in-person at greater rates than white residents during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections48. Florida-based studies found that limiting and removing opportunities for early in-person voting are associated with reduced voter turnout, especially among racial or ethnic minorities, Democrats, and those without a political party affiliation49, 50.

Experts suggest that vote-by-mail provides critical access to voting and political participation for voters with disabilities, particularly for those who are unable to travel by public transportation, have movement restrictions that would make entering a polling place challenging, or are unable to use commonly available voting equipment without assistance19, 51, 52. Voting challenges are often exacerbated for voters with disabilities due to the intersectionality of poverty, race, age, and disability in the U.S.; data indicates that minorities are more likely to have disabilities, while people with disabilities of working age are more likely to be unemployed than their peers, forcing them into poverty19. People with disabilities appear more likely to vote-by-mail; experts also suggest that no-excuse absentee voting or permanent absentee voting policies may increase the likelihood of voters with disabilities submitting mail-in ballots51. The expansion of emergency absentee voting opportunities may support voting among populations with illness and disabilities, including hospitalized voters53.

What is the relevant historical background?

The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788 and granted states the primary responsibility to regulate elections54. During the first presidential election in 1789, most states only granted voting rights to white, land-owning males55, though Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont allowed some or all free Black males to vote56. Eventually, Congress and states amended the Constitution to expand federal voting eligibility to other U.S. citizens. Constitutional amendments were the result of organized, citizen-led movements that developed significant public support over time to expand voting rights to specific groups. In 1870, several years after the end of the Civil War (1861-65), the 15th Amendment to the Constitution granted Black men the right to vote57, while women did not receive the right to vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 192058. Native Americans were not eligible to vote until Congress formally recognized them as U.S. citizens with the Snyder Act of 1924, 54 years after the 15th Amendment granted voting rights to U.S. male citizens59. People with disabilities and mental illness have been legally prevented from voting, along with those under guardianship, conservatorship, or with felony convictions who often also suffered from mental illness19. In the 20th century, a few laws were passed to increase accessibility for voters with disabilities, including the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Help America Vote Act of 200252. In 1992, the 26th Amendment expanded voter eligibility to U.S. citizens 18-years-old or older60.

Yet, even as voter eligibility was extended to more U.S. citizens, many states implemented exclusionary laws and practices that created structural barriers to prevent certain groups of people from voting55. In 1800, Massachusetts established the first state-run voter registration system, a practice that made it more difficult to register and to vote, especially for Americans who were Black, had low incomes, or were recent immigrants55. During the Jim Crow-era, literacy tests, poll taxes, and intimidation factors were used to suppress the Black vote61, resulting in only 3% of Black Americans registering to vote62. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which charged the federal government with ensuring that all citizens have the right to vote, regardless of race61. However, in 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key component of the Voting Rights Act, which made it possible for states to pass laws to make voting more challenging. As recently as 2020, states implemented voter ID laws, tightened restrictions on vote-by-mail, and purged voter rolls, all of which can have a discriminatory effect on voters63.

There have been some state-wide efforts to make voting more convenient. California became the first state with no-excuse absentee ballots in 1978, followed by Oregon and Washington in the 1980s; Oregon and Washington later established universal vote-by-mail systems, in 1998 and 2011, respectively47. In 1987, Texas created the first early-in person voting law, followed by Nevada, Colorado, and Tennessee in the 1990s, and Georgia and North Carolina in 200047.

Voter turnout in the U.S. trails that of other developed countries. This is attributed in part to the considerable variation in voting policies, based on where a voter lives64.

Equity Considerations
  • What local efforts can ensure that voters using mail-in ballots fill them out correctly, so they are less likely to be rejected on a technicality? How can these efforts be tailored to reach communities most likely to benefit from access to vote-by-mail (e.g., rural communities, people with disabilities, long-term care facilities, dense urban areas with limited polling places)?
  • How are local election officials and community partners connecting with groups in your community that generally have a harder time getting to the polls to hear and act on their concerns? How are those concerns being addressed?
  • Who opposes and supports voter turnout initiatives in your community? Why? Who has the authority and organizational power to protect voting accessibility in your community?
  • If polling location changes are necessary, what plans do your local election officials and community partners have to share information about these changes? What methods are best suited to reach groups that generally have a harder time getting to the polls and may require extra time to create alternate voting plans? What resources or planning support are available to those impacted by new locations (i.e., request mail-in ballot if the location is too far/inaccessible via public transit, vote early in-person, etc.)?
Implementation Examples

The U.S. Census tracks voter demographic characteristics and offers maps and other visualizations of voting and registration in the U.S.30. The National Association of Secretaries of State compiles resources in English and Spanish to help individuals understand their voting eligibility, registration status, how to register, where to vote, and more31. The U.S. Department of Justice offers voting resources specific to each state, along with guidance for voters with disabilities and election officials, including an ADA recommendations checklist to confirm polling places are accessible32, 33.

As of 2022, there are eight states (California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington) that automatically mail ballots to all registered voters; for those who prefer it, in-person voting at voting centers or local election offices is available34, 35, 36, 37. Early in-person voting is also available in 46 states, Washington, D.C., American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands; the four states without it (Alabama, Connecticut, Mississippi, and New Hampshire) may have other early voting options available for eligible absentee voters38.

Get-out-the-vote campaigns and organizations offer numerous resources and support for individuals interesting in understanding their voting eligibility; details about upcoming local, state, and national elections; and available voting methods. provides state-specific information about early voting options, along with resources to check voter registration status, register, request absentee ballots, sign up for election reminders, and more39, 40.

The League of Women Voters, a grassroots organization dedicated to empowering all voters regardless of gender and defending democracy for over 100 years, was instrumental in gathering support for many of the most pivotal election reform laws, including the National Voter Registration Act in 1993 and the Help America Vote Act in 200241. Current campaign efforts include expanding options for voter registration and voting locations, particularly for communities with limited access to transportation; removing voter ID requirements; and clear communication regarding candidate positions and campaign financing41. In addition, it maintains Vote411, a non-partisan election information website, which, along with voter registration and state-specific voting information, also features content about eligible voters’ unique ballots, details about making a voting plan, and candidate guides, all available in English and Spanish42.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

Rock the Vote - Rock the Vote. Voting information: Find all the information you need to vote in your state. - Everything you need to vote: Simplify political engagement, increase voter turnout, and strengthen American democracy.

League of Women Voters - League of Women Voters. Empowering voters, defending democracy.

US DOJ-Voting accessibility - U.S. Department of Justice (U.S. DOJ). Voting: Accessibility in voting.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

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29 US DHHS-OASH-HP 2030 CP - U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (U.S. DHHS), Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (OASH). Healthy People 2030. Civic participation.

30 US Census-Voting - U.S. Census Bureau. Public Sector: Voting and registration. 2022.

31 NASS-Vote - National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS). Can I vote. Washington, D.C.

32 US DOJ-Voting resources - U.S. Department of Justice (U.S. DOJ). Voting: State election resources.

33 US DOJ-Voting accessibility - U.S. Department of Justice (U.S. DOJ). Voting: Accessibility in voting.

34 NCSL-VBM 2022 - National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Voting outside the polling place: Absentee, all-mail and other voting at home options. 2022.

35 Colorado SOS-Voting - Colorado Secretary of State. Elections and voting: General election information FAQs.

36 Oregon SOS-Voting - Oregon Secretary of State. Voting & elections: Voting in Oregon.

37 Washington SOS-VBM - Washington Secretary of State, Elections Division. Frequently asked questions on voting by mail: Washington votes by mail every election.

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39 voting - Early voting calendar: Early voting by state.

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41 League of Women Voters - League of Women Voters. Empowering voters, defending democracy.

42 Vote411 - Vote411. Election information you need. League of Women Voters Education Fund.

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54 US Const. I-IV - U.S. Const. art. I, § IV.

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57 US Const. XIV - U.S. Const. amend. VIV.

58 US Const. XIX - U.S. Const. amend. XIX.

59 LOC-NA - Library of Congress. Classroom materials at the Library of Congress: Voting rights for Native Americans.

60 US Const. XXVI - U.S. Const. amend. XXVI.

61 LOC-AA - Library of Congress. Classroom materials at the Library of Congress: Voting rights for African Americans.

62 ACLU-VRA - American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Voting Rights Act: Major dates in history.

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