Election campaigns and covid: what happens if we all go postal?

The government expects the number of postal votes to surge for the “Super Thursday” elections taking place on 6th May. If it does and voting by mail becomes part of the ‘new normal’, how will it impact future election campaigns?

There are some behaviours that we’ve been forced into during the pandemic that we’ll drop like a stone as soon as it’s over, and others which look likely to stick around for much longer.

Polling reveals that the public are desperate to go back to eating at restaurants, but they’re less keen on returning to saying hello with a hug or a handshake.  

One of the many behaviours that started pre-pandemic but looks likely to accelerate thanks to Covid-19 is postal voting. 

On 6th May the most national set of local and regional elections ever will take place.  There are so many thanks to the batch of postponed contests rolling over from 2020 taking place alongside those always scheduled for this year.

There’s something for everyone on “Super Thursday”.  From Alex Salmond’s new Alba Party making their electoral debut in the Scottish Parliamentary elections, to Keir Starmer’s first major test with voters, to Sadiq Khan’s defence of his London Mayoralty.

survey carried out by the Electoral Commission in February of this year found that 42% of people said they would vote by post during the pandemic.

Data based on claimed intended behaviour should always be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. However, as we’ve seen the postal vote share jump in Covid-era elections in other countries it’s a fairly safe assumption more people will be voting by mail than ever before; in the 2020 US presidential election 65 million people – around 40% – voted by mail compared to 33.5 million in 2016.

The government is certainly anticipating a significant increase; it is building extra capacity to process postal votes and has reached an agreement with Royal Mail to prioritise ballots in “in the same way as it does now for coronavirus tests”.

Whilst it’s hard to find proof people who start postal voting don’t stop, there is circumstantial evidence: the share of total valid votes cast by post in general elections in the U.K. has steadily risen from 12% in 2005 to 18% in 2017 (weirdly, there is no data yet available from the House of Commons library for postal voting at the 2019 general election).

If there is a surge in postal voting and that habit sticks, it could have permanent changes to the way parties campaign at election time.

The main impact that registering for a postal vote has on a voter is that it makes them much more likely to vote than someone who is registered to vote at a polling station. 

At the 2017 general election, 83% of those issued with a postal ballot ended up voting, compared to an overall turnout of 69% amongst registered voters.

There’s no evidence that more postal voters intrinsically benefit one party over another.

Whilst in the US Presidential election last year Biden supporters were nearly twice as likely to have voted by mail, that was down to Trump making the method of voting an election issue.

Stanford University conducted an analysis of two decades worth of data across three states – California, Utah and Washington — and found that the introduction of mail-in voting “did not have an effect, on average, on the share of voter turnout for either Republicans or Democrats.”

That said, in a given election, if a campaign can get a likely supporter to register to vote by mail, that likely supporter is more likely to cast that vote.

This explains why various parties across the UK have been running advertising on Facebook and Google to encourage people to apply for a postal vote before the deadline.

The reason for this increase in turnout amongst postal voters isn’t complicated; finding a post box is typically easier than getting to a polling station and there is an extended period of time in which one can cast a vote.

This extended window for voting is the biggest factor in changing the dynamics of the campaign.

It will mean parties that are able to deploy more resources earlier in the campaign and maintain it for longer will disproportionately benefit, as ‘polling day’ is turned into ‘polling weeks’.

For example, canny political campaigners would historically make their most significant investment in political advertising in the week or two before polling day.

The reason for this is that the research suggests that political advertising has a short-lived impact.  Therefore, the less time that passes between the moment that a floating voter sees an ad and when they make up their mind as to who they will support, the more likely the ad is to be effective.  And most floating voters “switch on” to an election deeper into the campaign.

In an era where postal voting becomes more dominant, campaign managers will want their advertising deluge to begin as soon as ballots land on doormats and last until polls close.  

Having more money to spend on advertising than your competitor has always been an advantage to an election campaign and a hike in the number of postal voters will accentuate this further.

But cash isn’t the only valuable resource at election time.

As more people have a postal vote, the size of a campaign’s activist base becomes even more important.  Having more activists means you can more frequently knock-on likely supporters’ doors and ask them to fill in the ballot paper that’s lurking in the mail pile.

A greater proportion of postal voters also makes managing data effectively an even higher priority.  The more accurately a campaign knows who is likely to support them, whether they have a postal vote and if they have cast their vote or not, the more efficiently they can allocate valuable ad spend and activist time.

There will also be a whole range of contextual effects that campaign managers typically worry about in the final days of an election that will become less relevant.  From the big: last-minute endorsements by news publishers and eleventh-hour revelations about candidates.   To the small: bad weather on polling day and having enough vehicles to help transport supporters to the polling station.  

There have been plenty of historical examples of parties that have better adapted to new campaign contexts and been disproportionately successful because of it.  

New Labour’s approach to news media management contributed to Tony Blair’s electoral triumphs; the first ever live TV debates at the 2010 general election resulted in a wave of Lib Dem Cleggmania; the Conservative Party’s mastery of targeted digital advertising in 2015 helped David Cameron win an unexpected majority.  

Given a big jump in postal voting will almost certainly have a profound impact on turnout – that most crucial element of electoral success – it’s reasonable to expect that the party that better capitalises on this change in voter behaviour will reap the rewards at the ballot box.

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