How Do Absentee Ballots Work?

As elections coincide with COVID-19, absentee or mail-in voting is rising. Learn about how it works and why it's become a contentious issue.
A Joint Task Force Guantanamo Trooper fills out an absentee ballot for the upcoming presidential election, Oct. 8, 2008. (Spc. Carlynn Knaak/Public domain)

A Joint Task Force Guantanamo Trooper fills out an absentee ballot for the upcoming presidential election, Oct. 8, 2008. (Spc. Carlynn Knaak/Public domain)

How does absentee voting work?

Absentee voting is just what it sounds like. Instead of going to the polls to cast your vote in person, you can submit a ballot by mail, dropbox, or in person at the polls on polling day. Every state—and the District of Columbia—permits some form of this type of voting; military personnel and Americans living abroad always vote this way.

But that is where the possibility of narrowing this question down ends. Every state has different—and sometimes complicated—rules about who is eligible, conditions of eligibility, how and when to request a ballot, how and when a ballot must be delivered. One state we researched even requires a witness to the voter’s signature! States also differ as to how absentee ballots are tallied, what precautions are taken to be sure they are not subject to fraud. Some states, like Oregon, have eliminated in-person voting altogether, and some, like California, are set up so that voters can be part of a permanent list for absentee voting.

For absentee-only states, once a voter is registered, he/she automatically receives a ballot in the mail prior to the polling date. This also applies to states with permanent lists: once you’re on the list, you get a ballot in the mail. Besides that, what happens next differs state by state—including how long “permanent” absentee status is maintained.

As of this writing, 17 states require an excuse if you want to vote by mail. Five states do all voting by absentee ballot, and the rest permit absentee ballots on request. You can find a detailed list of each state’s absentee ballot rules here.

How to fill out an absentee ballot?

We really wish we could answer this question with a clear step-by-step set of instructions. But a quick google image search will demonstrate to you how different each ballot is. What they each have in common, of course, is your name, address, and signature, and a list of candidates and other items on the ballot with some kind of bubble to fill in. Other than that? Sky’s the limit. It’s most definitely not a one-size-fits-all process.

The single most important thing you can do is to go to the relevant website of your state government, and learn what the procedures are. Some states have downloadable PDF applications you can fill it out and submit online, or online forms. Others will mail you the application and then you have to return it by mail. Especially during this election season, with COVID-19 wreaking havoc on systems because of needed updates and skeleton crews, and the USPS under threat of extinction, do this early!

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What are the benefits of absentee voting?

  • In the time of the coronavirus pandemic, the obvious pro is that voting remotely is a form of social distancing that will help to stave off infections and death. That one is hard to beat.
  • Absentee voting is convenient. You can put your feet up, study your ballot and accompanying materials, and vote in the comfort of your own home.
  • Absentee voting tends to increase turnout, especially for down-ballot and local elections. In this era when polling places disappear without notice on polling day, and people end up standing in long lines or having to travel long distances, by-mail voting helps to ensure that every American can get their vote in.
  • Absentee voting can save money for states, because they no longer have to staff and equip polling sites.
  • In states with stringent safeguards in place, absentee voting can reduce the possibilities of voter fraud. At the very least it eliminates the potential for electronic voting machine malfunction.

Are there downsides to expanding absentee voting?

Expanding absentee voting nationwide could be a daunting process, since states all have varying requirements, and any such policy would require a lot of coordination. That said, given where we are right now, it only makes sense. Interestingly, support for the question is strictly bifurcated along party lines.

For example, in a March 29 interview on Meet the Press, Joe Biden said that he thinks we should be looking at voting by mail across the board, and soon. He acknowledged the difficulties, but for him it was not only a “yes,” it was a high priority.

Compare and contrast that with what Donald Trump said at his April 3 Coronavirus briefing: “I think a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting. It shouldn’t be mail-in voting…and you should have voter ID because when you have voter ID, that’s the real deal.” He also opined on Fox and Friends, that “…if you agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Putting aside for a moment that the first of these statements is…well…sheer opinion with no basis in fact or data, it’s important to note that Trump’s thinking links the issue of Voter ID (which has been used to suppress voting in red states and is very controversial) and how mail-in voting would negatively affect GOP results. Traditionally, when turnout increases, Democrats win. Simply put, Trump and his GOP colleagues are afraid that if people actually have an easy time voting, they will be voted out of power. This may be true, but it’s also the fact that in some red states, mail-in voting helps Republicans win.

Absentee Voting Deadlines

Absentee voting is convenient, but it is critical to stay on top of deadlines. In order for your ballot to be counted, you must strictly adhere to your state’s requirements. The best source of information for that is your state’s election-related website. Ballots will include instructions as well, so it’s important to make sure you read them carefully, and keep your mail-in ballot on top of your piles of other papers at all times so it doesn’t get buried (or worse, recycled!) You can find all the state deadlines here.

The Rantt Rundown

As COVID-19 threatens Americans with severe illness and death, one front and center aspect of social distancing has to do with how we vote. All states permit absentee voting, but with wide variations on how that works. There is a movement afoot to expand absentee voting nationwide. Support for this is bifurcated along strict party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans vehemently opposed.

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Rantt 101 // 2020 / Elections / Voting