Who gets to determine what policy to enact is a question society has faced since the dawn of the republic. The American founders combined the direct democracy of the Greeks (where citizens voted on every action with black or white pebbles) with the Roman republic (where class oligarchs chose representatives in the Senate). In America, “the people” would choose representatives to decide on their behalf, and voters would take to the polls often — not necessarily to express viewpoints on policy, but to depose or extend a representative’s tenure. 

As soon as the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the question of who would have the right to vote shaped the nation. From Seneca Falls to Appomattox to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, citizens demanded that the circle of inclusion widen until this right was granted to every citizen 18 and older.

Soliciting voter preferences, however, is difficult in a diverse constituency. Public choice, a branch of economics that studies how politicians respond to incentives set by political systems, shows that a politician’s goal is often not necessarily to maximize their constituency’s happiness, but rather to ensure their own reelection. This scenario is an example of the “principle-agent problem,” when the agent who chooses on behalf of the principle follows their own self-interest. 

Constitutions should strive to align the elected official’s incentives so that they represent the median (or 50 percentile) voter. Healthy elections should prioritize the middle ground over extreme voices. However, when there are barriers to voter participation, the political marketplace becomes distorted and incentives are misaligned. More engaged voters from across the spectrum encourage political competition and better outcomes. Iron sharpens iron, as the Book of Proverbs tells us. 

If voter participation is so vital, why are citizens disengaged? Behavioral economics teaches us that many times we fail to act to do what is best for us for multiple reasons: distractions, present-biased preferences, incomplete information, procrastination, busyness or apathy. Perhaps a polling place is too far away, or someone is sick or disabled, or lacks transportation to vote in person. Schedules may conflict, or perhaps voters are temporarily out of the area for military service, missionary work or educational pursuits. 

Economics Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein explain in their fascinating book “Nudge” that the default choice can create status-quo bias or inertia in decision making. “If you want to encourage some activity,” they argue, “make it easy!” This principle shows why utilities and streaming companies encourage customers to sign up for automatic bill pay. Defaults determine behavior. 

Universal vote-by-mail is a fantastic application of setting the default option to overcome barriers to voting. Under this system, everyone has access to their ballot and time to complete it. Citizens can study candidates for races that they hadn’t realized were on the ballot. The state uses signature verification from driver’s licenses and other forms of approved identification to ensure election security. 

Does this opt-in change outcomes? An interesting study published by researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of Virginia uses a powerful statistical method to answer this question. The estimator (called difference in differences) compares states that enacted the policy to those that didn’t, before and after the change. Empirically, it is like comparing two trains on parallel tracks. A conductor switches one train to another track. We can then compare where the trains end up to estimate the causal effect of the policy. 

The authors found that partisan electoral shares do not change. The same percentage of Republican or Democratic votes are cast. However, voter participation skyrockets. What about fraud? Other researchers have found no evidence of voter fraud (and if anything a slight decline). Vote-by-mail makes elections healthier.

Opinion: Why do some lawmakers want to change vote-by-mail?
Perspective: How to remedy the West’s fractured election policies

It’s unfortunate that some elected officials are calling for Utah and other states to switch their default option away from vote-by-mail. Given the peer-reviewed, empirical evidence of its effectiveness, this policy will decrease voter participation, especially among those who face the most barriers: racial minorities, the elderly, the disabled, the military and stressed-out parents with young children.  

If there is a worry about voter fraud, we have recourse. Aggrieved parties can present their strong evidence to a court of law under oath. Sadly, some would rather tell half-baked and factually challenged fables to the public. This behavior slowly chips away at our democratically elected republic and destroys social trust. 

Nothing is more sacred in our American system than the right to vote. Many have marched, protested, suffered, fought and died to preserve that right. Let us honor their sacrifice by encouraging voter participation and ensuring true integrity in our elections. 

Michael S. Kofoed, @mikekofoed on X, is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a research fellow at the Institute of Labor Economics. A Utah native, he holds degrees in economics from Weber State University and the University of Georgia.