ANSWER: W=0. If you use business reply, there is no cost for unreturned mail. Thanks PM. I told you there would be math! Doing the hypothetical calculations on “wasted” pre-paid postage in Oregon’s VBM system

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More corrections in the next posting.  

There are two details about business reply mail that I was not aware of. First, there is no cost to the sender for business reply mail that is not returned.  Second, there is twice the postage cost for business reply that is returned.  

As Dean Logan once told me, running elections in some jurisdictions is like running a direct mail operation, and some of the details are very specific.  I apologize for mistakes in the original version of this posting.

Don Palmer, senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center and previously chief elections officer in Virginia and in Florida wonders about the costs of ballots that are not returned (and I presume also not mailed).

Don uses 140 characters to pose a devilishly complex question.  It is easy to figure out the cost of adding postage–just take the number of ballot envelopes (in Oregon, this is roughly equal to the number of registered voters, the only adjustments are for the small number of individuals who have provisions in place not to have their ballot mailed because of court protection orders and similar) and multiply by the cost of postage.

There are no costs at all for unreturned business mail.  Thanks to Tammy Patrick  at BPC for pointing me to this link explaining business reply mail From that page:

The Postal Service collects the applicable postage, plus a per-piece fee, only on pieces that customers actually send back to the mailer. This allows mailers to save postage costs on large volumes of distributed reply pieces when a response is not assured.

The rest of this is just an academic exercise.  I’m leaving most intact because it identifies all the various categories of voters that may or may not respond to postage paid return envelopes.

For the purpose of this exercise, let’s call the total number of ballot envelopes N, the cost of postage P, and the “waste” as W.

We know the state will be on the hook for N*P, estimated at $1.2 million per election. (To make the calculations easier to follow, I’ll just assume P=1 for the rest of this posting.)

But how much of this expense is “wasted” (W)?  NONE. I think Don is asking: how many postage paid envelopes are either not returned or are returned into drop boxes?

This calculation isn’t simple. Let’s assume that counties will not reduce the number of drop boxes (thus making it harder to drop off ballots) in response to this change. 

Let’s start with the 2012 election as our baseline.  There were 2,199,360 registered voters in the 2012 election, and 1,541,782, or 82.8% turned out to vote.

This gives us our first piece of baseline number of non-voters in Oregon  W –657,578.

Note that this assumes that voter turnout is unaffected by the inclusion of the stamp. I’m not comfortable making any assumptions about turnout, as I detailed in the previous post, but if you agree with advocates that this will help younger voters, lower income voters, and rural voters, then you’d need to make some adjustment to allow for increase turnout (hence lower waste).

Our second piece of W non-mail returns comes from the 59% of voters who currently drop off their ballots.  If everyone who currently drops off ballots continues to do so, this adds an enormous amount of waste: 1,066,939.  (This figures comes straight from the Secretary of State’s report on methods of ballot return.)

That’s a pretty big number, but we have to subtract ballots that are sent by mail in the future because of free postage but were dropped off in the past.  Here’s where thing get fun–and hard.  Predicting how future behavior will change based on changes to the rules is the essence of modern political science, but is also an exercise fraught with uncertainty.

We reported yesterday the reasons given for dropping off a ballot.

I think it’s fair to assume that the 18.8% who cited “cost” or “no stamp” would mail under the new system.  That reduces W drop offs by .188 * 1,066,939=200,584.

I also think it’s fair to assume that those who cited security concerns (17.9%) or said “I was too late to mail” (12.8%) would not change their future behavior.  These total 327,550 (.307*1,066,939) voters who will continue to drop off their ballot.

This leaves us with two sets of voters–those who cited “Convenience” as a reason to drop off their ballot (40.2%) and those who cited “Habit” (6%).  I’ll assume both of these groups will change their behavior and use the mail–this increases the mail flow by reduces W by 46.2%*1,066,939=492,925.

We’re nearly done.  Our current estimate of waste is made of up those who don’t vote (657,578) plus those who have security concerns or who complete their ballots too late to mail (327,550).

The total is 985,128 ballots with business reply envelopes  paid postage that are either not returned or continue to be dropped off.  (Mathematically minded readers will notice that there are 5% of the drop off ballots that are unaccounted for–these are individuals who gave no reason for dropping off, or gave a reason that we could not code.)

Just one more complication.  Things are never easy!

Automatic voter registration (AVR) in Oregon (known in the state as “Oregon Motor Voter”) throws another wrench into the works.

AVR is projected to add as many as 275,000 citizens to the registration rolls, but it remains very unclear how many of these new registrants will actually vote.  This will increase the number of “wasted” ballot materials s and postage paid ballot envelopes, but by how many?

I think it would be generous to assume that half of these new registrants will vote, and if the same 30.7% vote late or don’t trust the postal system, that will result in another 42,212 wasted ballots.

The main sources of uncertainty in my estimate, for those advocating for and against this legislation:

  • The number of individuals who turn out overall may increase as a result of pre-paid business reply postage.  Non-voters are the largest source of waste in any universal ballot delivery system.
  • My estimate of turnout among the newly registered (AVR) citizens may also be low.  I used a very generous estimate of 50% even though academic research estimates this value to be as low as 25%.
  • Campaigns and vote mobilization organizations respond to changes in the rules and the laws, and it may be that these organizations will react to pre-paid postage by encouraging more citizens to vote their ballots early (reducing the “too late” numbers) and will be able to convince voters that the postal service is trustworthy (that’s going to be a much more difficult lift).

That being said, I think an estimate of approximately one million ballots that are not returned in a presidential year is within the right ballpark. In non-presidential years, the numbers will be much higher–15% higher in midterms and 60% higher in special elections.

And let’s be clear–if the focus is solely on “waste”, universal ballot delivery incurs many more costs by mailing ballots to everyone.  Oregon officials can tell you how much it costs to prepare and deliver a ballot to every registered voter, but I have been schooled by my friends and now know that and I suspect that 30 cent (total guess!) business class postage doesn’t increase the per-ballot costs at all by that much for those ballots that are unreturned.

Advocates will assert that it is in these low turnout elections, such as specials, that there is substantially more room for increases in turnout due to pre-paid business reply postage.  The problem is that these elections already are among the lowest turnout in the state even with universal mail delivery.