Voting Outside the Polling Place: Absentee, All-Mail and other Voting at Home Options

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12 mins read

Most states offer at least one method for any eligible voter to cast a ballot before Election Day. While some states provide early in-person voting, this webpage addresses absentee voting and all-mail voting.

Please see our webinar series on this topic.

Absentee Voting: All states will mail an absentee ballot to certain voters who request one.  In two-thirds of the states, any qualified voter may vote absentee without offering an excuse, and in one-third of the states, an excuse is required. Some states offer a permanent absentee ballot list: once a voter asks to be added to the list, s/he will automatically receive an absentee ballot for all future elections.

All-Mail Voting: In a handful of states, a ballot is automatically mailed to every eligible voter (no request or application is necessary). Polling places may also be available for voters who would like to vote in-person. Other states may permit the all-mail option for specific types of elections.

As for early in-person voting, it is available in four-fifths of the states. In these states, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day.  Please see our page on State Laws Governing Early Voting.

NOTE: This page should be used for general informational purposes only. It is not intended as a legal advice. Please contact your local election officials for information on voting in your jurisdiction. 

Introduction

When, where and how Americans vote has evolved over the course of the last 250 years. When the United States first came into being, voters would voice their choices on courthouse steps, out loud and very much not in secret. Toward the end of the 19th century, a paper ballot became common and was increasingly cast in private at a neighborhood polling place. Times are changing again. The majority of states now permit voters to cast ballots before Election Day, either in person at designated early voting sites, or via a ballot that has been mailed to the voter’s home. In all states, to varying degrees, voting now takes place not just on one day during a certain time period, but over a series of days and weeks before the election, as well.

Some states provide an early, in-person voting period; for information on this option, please see NCSL’s webpage State Laws Governing Early Voting.

All states allow voters who have a reason they can’t vote on Election Day to request a ballot in advance, and many states allow all voters to request a ballot in advance without requiring a reason. States vary on what extent they offer these options, including some states that deliver ballots to all voters (while maintaining some in-person voting locations for those that prefer to vote in person or may need assistance). This page goes into detail about each of these variations and how absentee/mailed ballots are handled in states.

A Note on Terminology

A ballot that has been sent to a voter and is voted outside of a polling place or election official’s office has traditionally been referred to as an “absentee ballot” and the person who votes that ballot has been called an “absentee voter.” This terminology is common in state law and comes from the concept that voters would use this option only when they were “absent” from their neighborhood polling place on Election Day. As time has gone on and more and more voters request a ballot in advance as their default voting method, and as states have begun offering more opportunities for voters to do so, the terminology has evolved. Some states refer to “advance ballots,” “mailed ballots,” “by-mail ballots,” “mail ballots” or “vote-by-mail ballots.”

In this report NCSL has chosen to use “absentee/mailed ballots” to reflect the traditional terminology and also the evolution of the use of the term. Note that this term refers to ballots that are mailed out to voters by election officials and does not indicate the method voters choose to return the ballot. Often these “absentee/mailed ballots” are returned via methods other than mail, i.e. in person at a voting location or at a secure drop box.

As legislators consider policies that allow more people to “vote at home,” or vote by mail, or vote absentee, they will be weighing advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages

  • Voter convenience and satisfaction. Citizens can review their ballots at home and take all the time they need to study the issues. Voters often express enthusiasm for this option. See this survey from Oregon Public Broadcasting on the Beaver State’s all-mail voting system that showed 87% support, for example.
  • Financial savings. Jurisdictions may save money because moving toward more absentee/mailed ballot voting reduces the need to staff and equip traditional polling places. A 2016 study of Colorado from The Pew Charitable Trusts found costs decreased an average of 40% in five election administration categories across 46 of Colorado’s 64 counties (those with available cost data) after it implemented all-mail ballot elections. (Note: The study examines a number of reforms Colorado enacted in 2013, with all-mail elections being the most significant. Others included instituting same-day registration and shortening the time length for residency in the state for voting purposes.)
  • Turnout. Some reports indicate that because of convenience, voter turnout increases. See this 2013 report on all-mail ballot elections in Washington and this 2018 report on all-mail ballot elections in Utah. Effects on turnout can be more pronounced for lower turnout elections (local elections, for example) and for low propensity voters (those who are registered but do not vote as frequently). Evidence for increased turnout based on absentee/mailed ballot voting, instead of all-mail ballot elections, is not as clear.

Disadvantages

  • Financial considerations. Sending ballots by mail increases printing costs for an election. There may be up-front costs of changing to different vote-counting equipment, although overall fewer voting machines are required in jurisdictions that have more absentee/mailed ballot voting and count ballots at a centralized location. If a state chooses to pay for return postage for these ballots that could also increase costs.
  • An increase in voter “errors” or “residual votes.” When marking a ballot outside of an in-person voting location, a voter can potentially mark more selections in a contest than the maximum number allowed (called an overvote) or mark less than the maximum number allowed, including marking nothing for that contest (called an undervote). Political scientists often refer to these overvotes and undervotes as errors or residual votes. Voting equipment at in-person voting locations will notify voters if this happens and allow the voter the opportunity to correct it. When returning an absentee/mailed ballot there is not a similar mechanism to inform voters of errors, so there tend to be more overvotes and undervotes. Damaged absentee/mailed ballots may be harder to correct as well. Procedural choices can mitigate this effect to some extent.
  • Tradition. The civic experience of voting with neighbors at a local school, church or other polling place is lost when voting with an absentee/mailed ballot. Some point out that the experience can be shared with family members at home in a way that isn’t possible with in-person voting. 
  • Disparate effect on some populations. Mail delivery is not uniform across the nation. Native Americans on reservations in particular may have difficulty with all-mail elections. Many do not have street addresses, and their P.O. boxes may be shared. Low-income citizens move more frequently and keeping addresses current can pose problems. Literacy can be an issue for some voters, as well, since election materials are often written at a college level. (Literacy can be a problem for voters at traditional polling place locations, too.)
  • Opportunities for coercion. If a voter is marking a ballot at home, and not in the presence of election officials, there may be more opportunity for coercion by family members or others.
  • Slower result reporting. Ballots may continue to arrive up to and even after Election Day (depending on state law), so it can take days (or longer) after the election before election officials are able to count all ballots. Note that final results are typically not official until a week or two after the election. During this time, all states are examining provisional ballots and ballots coming from military or overseas voters, as well. Policy choices can mitigate this effect.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (ncsl.org) provides a lot of other useful information on their website, including additional discussions of Voting Outside the Home topics.


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