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Merlin did some analysis of possible electoral effects of rejections of vote-by-mail ballots . . .

Elliott writes:

Postal voting could put America’s Democrats at a disadvantage: Rejection rates for absentee ballots have fallen since 2016, but are higher for non-whites than whites

The final impact of a surge in postal voting will not be known until weeks after the election. Yet North Carolina, a closely contested state, releases detailed data on ballots as they arrive. So far, its figures suggest that a tarnished election is unlikely—but that Democrats could be hurt by their disproportionate embrace of voting by mail. . . .

The Tar Heel state has received eight times as many postal votes as it had by this point in 2016. Despite fears about first-time absentee voters botching their ballots, the share that are rejected has in fact fallen to 1.3%, from 2.6% in 2016. This is probably due in part to campaigns educating supporters on voting by mail, and also to new efforts by the state to process such ballots.

However, these gains have been concentrated among white and richer voters, causing North Carolina’s already large racial gap in rejection rates to widen. In 2016 black voters sent in 10% of postal ballots, but 18% of discarded ones. This year, those shares are 17% and 42%. That hurts Democrats, who rely on black voters’ support. . . .

Partisan differences over voting by mail exacerbate this effect. In the past, Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to do so. But polling by YouGov now shows that 51% of likely Democratic voters plan to vote absentee, compared with 32% of Republicans. Extrapolating North Carolina’s patterns nationwide, a model built by Merlin Heidemanns of Columbia University finds that 0.7% of ballots intended for Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presidential nominee, will be rejected postal votes, versus 0.3% of those cast for Donald Trump. . . .

Kyle Hausmann saw the above-linked article and asked if we had any thoughts on how impactful that might be on the election outcome. He also asked “whether or not trends in ballot rejection might already be implicitly baked into your economist forecast, simply by virtue of the rejected ballots not being included in the historical voter count date.”

Merlin replied:

Elliott and I expect the overall number of rejected ballots to be higher and for Democrats to be disproportionately negatively affected because rejection rates are larger within the groups that tend to vote for them and because they are more likely to vote absentee to begin with. While an equity issue, we don’t expect this to meaningfully affect the outcome of the election given that it primarily affects states that are safely Democrat aside from one or two that are mentioned in the article. I did some work on this for USA Today and did some further exploratory analysis of the NC data here and some raw number rejections by ethnic group based on 2016 data here .

It’s not baked into our forecast because vote-by-mail numbers will be at a historic high this year.


  1. Phil says:

    I suspect some people will vote by mail who would not have otherwise voted in person. Similarly, I suspect there will be people who vote by mail this year who did not vote in any way in the last election. If there are more Democrats than Republicans in these groups then the resulting increase in Democratic votes might easily overcome the imbalance in rejected ballots.

    But of course I could be wrong.

    • Andrew says:


      Yes. Here’s the final paragraph of the article linked above:

      Postal voting does offer Democrats a silver lining. Although absentee ballots are less likely to be counted than are those cast in person, they do not require voters to find a polling place, wait in queues or show ID. They are also immune to illness, weather or other election-day emergencies. If the ease of postal voting raises Democrats’ tally by more than the spoilage rate reduces it, the party would still come out ahead.

  2. Martha (Smith) says:

    There does seem to be a difference between the usual “absentee ballot” situation of previous elections, and current practices, where (at least in some places), the ballot received my mail can be turned in at a “drop off” location that may require showing an ID and signing a roster, but in a drive-up format that avoids long waiting in line and minimizes close contact with others.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I dont know how much longer this non-whites = democrats assumption is going to hold.

    A lot of people are really pissed about extreme lockdowns threatening their livelihoods and government sanctioned violence threatening their life and property in democrat run areas. Democrats are turning into a party of rich white people who work from their safe suburban home on a computer. Theres still a lot of inertia of course though.

    • somebody says:

      It will last as long as Republicans are hostile to our existence in the country

      • Anonymous says:

        Yet all the systemic racism is being protested in cities that have been democrat strongholds for decades. And right now democrat governments are the ones letting black neighborhoods be destroyed, shutting down small businesses while large corporations stay open, and generally increasing the concentration of wealth.

      • jim says:

        “It will last as long as Republicans are hostile to our existence in the country”

        Don’t conflate opposition to unrestricted immigration and support for removing illegal immigrants with racism. That may serve a useful political purpose but generally its false.

        • somebody says:

          Wow, I’ve wondered for a while if people genuinely don’t see the transparently racist shit or if they were just pretending. “Deporting illegal immigrants.” Huh, but clamping down on H1Bs, barring green card holders, what’s behind that? Then-former Chief Strategy Officer for the White House Steve Bannon, on paths to citizenship for talented graduates, problematized the number of Asian American CEOs in silicon valley, claiming “ a country’s more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”

          What’s the non-racial justification for that? What about the Republican president saying of American congresswomen:

          “who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.”

          Is that just “opposition to unrestricted immigration?” 3 of the 4 people he was referring to are naturalized American citizens, 2 of them have American parents. Yelling “go back where you came from” to immigrants was a didactic example of racism when I was in school, now yelling it at American-born citizens is just a policy position.

          Being a bit racist is not the worst thing in the world. I liked the Republicans’ concern for regulatory capture and small business health 12 years ago, and maybe that’s still buried in there somewhere. But putting a donkey in front of me and calling it a horse convinces no one but maybe yourself.

          • jim says:

            Since when is Steve Bannon a typical Republican? That’s a laugh. If you’re characterizing Bannon as a typical Republican then you must have missed just the last five years. Lots of Republicans hate him.

            You don’t have to be racist to agree with this part of Trumps jab at Omar: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.” A lot of Americans share that sentiment and justifiably so.

            “I’ve wondered for a while if people genuinely don’t see the transparently racist shit”

            • anon e mouse says:

              Well, okay, one doesn’t HAVE to be racist to think that telling non-white immigrants to go back where they came from is okay, but someone who says that is almost certainly at least xenophobic and there is certainly a correlation between the two!

              Also, it’s particularly nonsensical when talking about someone like Omar who was brought to the US by their parents as a child. In all likelihood she has nowhere in Somalia to “go back” to since she’s spent the overwhelming majority of her life including her entire adult life living in the US.

              • jim says:

                “telling non-white immigrants to go back where they came from is okay”

                It’s perfectly OK to say that to Omar and it has nothing to do with her race. However she got here at whatever age and whatever her race, her attitude justifies the shit that’s been piled on her. If it sucks that bad she can go anywhere she wants. No one is stopping her. And if she can’t take the shit she called down on herself maybe she should watch her mouth.

              • jim says:

                Sorry to say being a POC female doesn’t give you free pass when you talk shit about people.

              • somebody says:

                You can criticize her for being kind of antisemetic, constantly speaking in angry hyperbole, not understanding economic realities, having a shitty attitude. The statement in question isn’t any of that, it’s explicitly questioning the legitimacy of her policy opinions on the basis her national origin. There’s no point disputing the content of the message, it’s all written down. It’s xenophobic at best for her, and can only be considered racist for the other people involved given THEIR national origin is American.

                You haven’t even defended the statement, just attacked Omar. I don’t care what she deserves, I’m talking about the character of the Republican president. The version of your argument most charitable to your reading comprehension skills is “as long as she’s sufficiently horrible, it’s fine to be kind of xenophobic to a legal American citizen. Just be horrible back, because she deserves it”

              • anon e mouse says:

                Ah, I see, we’re doing “it’s okay to say things that sound xenophobic or racist if they’re about someone I think deserves it.” Good to know.

                Also, and surely you know this, but most people cannot live “anywhere they want,” because visas in most countries, even less desirable ones, do not work that way and haven’t ever worked that way in my lifetime, and probably not in yours either.

            • somebody says:

              And Bannon was Chief Strategist for the white house, and immigration restrictions have been going up, and Trump has been trying to create rules to bar green cards from returning, and H1Bs are only harder to come by. It really seems that the incumbent administration doesn’t like legal immigrants either.

              What kind of pathetic attempt at obfuscation is this? It wasn’t about Omar, it was about multiple people, plural, there in writing. 3 of those people are naturalized American citizens. Again, you aren’t fooling anyone. If I were you, I would be embarrassed for having tried it, because you’re fooling exactly nobody. I pointed out very clearly that it was a statement directed at naturalized American citizens, you didn’t miss it, you just found the one person it could have been about such that there’s possibly a non-racist interpretation, then tried rhetorically magnify that aspect to avoid giving any ground. Look at yourself, look at what you’re trying to justify.

          • jim says:

            “I’ve wondered for a while if people genuinely don’t see the transparently racist shit”

            Maybe that’s just you imposing your transparent paranoia and fear on everything in your world, and your striking inability to see how unrestricted immigration is bad for everyone here, no matter what race they are.

            • confused says:

              >>inability to see how unrestricted immigration is bad for everyone here

              Given that the US, like practically every developed nation, has a below-replacement birthrate, and that the economics of the Social Security system etc. expects/requires that workers outnumber retirees, this is far from obviously true.

              There may be *local and specific* detrimental effects in specific circumstances, but more immigration in general almost has to be

              We are not going to overwhelm the US’s infrastructure or anything, our population is 330 million. Even the 4 Mexican-border states (TX+NM+AZ+CA) total almost 80 million.

              • confused says:

                oops. incomplete sentence – should say “more immigration in general almost has to be a net-positive in the big picture”.

    • Ymous says:

      yeah, there’s a lot of political bias in this eternal non-whites = Democrats assumption.

      Also, none of the prestigious election analysts here seem interested as to exactly WHY “absentee ballots are less likely to be counted than are those cast in person” — they just casually attribute it to an unproven assumption that Democrats vote by mail more than others.

      It should be an enormous daily-headline scandal if the U.S. mail-balloting system is unreliable, but nobody seems to see it that way… just another little glitch in an otherwise trustworthy overall election process?

      • Andrew says:


        1. No one but you has been talking about “eternal non-whites = Democrats assumption.” The above-linked article is about the 2020 election, where it seems pretty clear from polls that most non-whites who vote will indeed vote for the Democrats. You can feel free to make predictions about the non-white vote in 2022, 2024, etc.

        2. The statement that Democrats are voting by mail more than others is not “an unproven assumption.” We know this from party registration data (see here) and we can also estimate it from surveys.

        3. More generally, your dig at “prestigious election analysts” adds nothing to the conversation. And of course we are interested in why absentee ballots are less likely to be counted than are those cast in person.

  4. Just naïve about voting in the US but is race known, indicated or predicted somehow?

    • Andrew says:


      I think the estimates above are from surveys where respondents are asked to state their race.

    • Merlin says:

      We essentially have MRP estimates from a YouGov survey for vote intention and conditional on vote intention, vote method. We get MRP estimates for the rejection probability from 2016 and 2020 VBM data from North Carolina and extrapolate from there. NC captures age, race, gender, and we get income at the ZIP code. We then compare post stratified vote shares that are adjusted (accounting for rejections) and not adjusted.

  5. anonima says:

    Some weeks ago, comments had to be corrected because they included homophobic and / or transphobic slurs. Good.
    Now there is some “jim” defending ““telling non-white immigrants to go back where they came from is okay” It’s perfectly OK to say that to Omar and it has nothing to do with her race.” Someone points out blatant racism but this Jim goes on and on.
    Can someone in the blog please take some kind of action regarding these comments? Or is this normal now?

    • Andrew says:


      We should get you and this commenter in the same room to thrash this one out. There seems to be disappointment in our commenters from all directions.

    • Jim says:

      I’m not racist, and your insinuation that I am is offensive. I’d probably like Omar if I knew her personally. Obama seems like a nice guy. He made a ballsy call on the Seal raid in Pakistan, too. It was a risky move but he showed excellent judgement. I don’t care what color people are.

      However, Omar’s rants about the US offend me, and I have every right to express my views. And every time I hear some Canadian living here and complaining about US policy, I tell the the same thing: go back if you don’t like it. Even white ones.

      • somebody says:

        Omar isn’t “some Canadian living here”, she’s an American, with no expressed intention of living anywhere else. The others targeted by the comment have never lived anywhere else, there is no country to “go back to.” I have to ask you again jim, how does Trump’s comment cohere without referring to his targets’ race?

        The comment in question tells brown naturalized American citizens, the majority of which were born here, to go back where they came from, and you’re here telling me calling it racist is just me “imposing my transparent paranoia and fear on everything in my world?” For the record, jim, I don’t think you’re racist, nor do I think being racist is the worst thing in the world. But it really feels like you’re trying hard to stay at right angles with reality here, and it makes you look very silly. A racist Trump isn’t what you want, but it’s what you got.

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