Absentee and Early Voting

11/7/2019

Overview

Most states have a method for any eligible voter to cast a ballot before Election Day, either in-person during the early voting period or by requesting an absentee ballot.

States can choose to provide three ways for voters to cast a ballot before Election Day:

  1. Early Voting: In 39 states and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day. No excuse or justification is required. Two additional states will provide this option in the coming years. 
  2. Absentee Voting: All states will mail an absentee ballot to certain voters who request one. The voter may return the ballot by mail or in person. In 17 states, an excuse is required, while 33 states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to vote absentee without offering an excuse. 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.
  3. Mail Voting: A ballot is automatically mailed to every eligible voter (no request or application is necessary). In-person voting sites may also be available for voters who would like to vote in-person and to provide additional services to voters. Five states mail ballots to all eligible voters for every election. Other states may provide this option for some types of elections.

Early Voting

early voting options 50-state map

Most states offer some sort of early voting. Early voting allows voters to visit an election official’s office or, in some states, other satellite voting locations, and cast a vote in person without offering an excuse for why the voter is unable to vote on Election Day. Some states also allow voters to receive, fill out and cast their absentee ballot in person at the elections office or at a satellite location rather than returning it through the mail. This is often referred to as in-person absentee voting. Satellite voting locations vary by state, and may include other county and state offices (besides the election official’s office), grocery stores, shopping malls, schools, libraries, and other locations. More detailed information can be found on NCSL's State Laws Governing Early Voting page.


Absentee Voting

absentee voting 50-state map

Absentee voting is conducted by mail-in paper ballot prior to the day of the election. States typically require that a voter fill out an application to receive an absentee ballot. While all states offer some version of absentee voting, there is quite a lot of variation in states’ procedures. For instance, some states offer "no-excuse" absentee voting, allowing any registered voter to request an absentee without requiring that the voter state a reason for his/her desire to vote absentee. Still other states permit voters to vote absentee only under a limited set of circumstances.

The following 33 states and D.C. offer "no-excuse" absentee or by mail voting: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado*, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii*, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon*, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island**, South Dakota, Utah*, Vermont, Washington*, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

*Designates a state that sends mail ballots to all eligible voters. Voters don’t need to request a mail ballot but automatically receive one. See NCSL’s webpage on All-Mail Elections.

**Rhode Island still lists a number of excuses to vote absentee, but also specifies “No specific reason necessary.” Since anyone can request an absentee ballot NCSL has categorized is as no excuse required.

Permanent Absentee Voting

Some states permit voters to join a permanent absentee voting list. This option may be offered to all voters, or to a limited number of voters based on certain criteria.

Seven states plus D.C. permit any voter to join a permanent absentee ballot list and will mail that voter an absentee ballot for each election: Arizona, California, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey and Utah.

Note that both Hawaii and Utah will hold all-mail ballot elections in 2020, and California counties are moving in that direction as well.

The following states send absentee ballot to voters on the permanent list, without having to reapply, based on certain criteria. Note that in some cases a note from a physician or other indication of a permanent disability may be required.

State

Voters with Permanent Disabilities

Senior Voters (65+)

Alabama

Ala.Code 1975 § 17-11-3.1

 

Connecticut

Conn. Gen. Stat. 9-140e

 

Delaware

Del. Code Ann. Tit. 15, §5503(k)

 

Kansas

Kan. Stat. Ann. §25-1122(h)

 

Louisiana

Louisiana Secretary of State Disability Program

Mississippi

Miss. Code Ann. § 23-15-629

 

New York

N.Y. Election Law §8-400

 

Tennessee

T. C. A. § 2-6-201

 

West Virginia

W. Va. Code §3-3-2b

 

Wisconsin

Wis. Stat. § 6.86(2)(a)

 

An additional 5 states automatically send absentee voter applications to voters on a permanent list. This differs from the category above since voters have to return the application before receiving an absentee ballot:

  • Minnesota permits any voter to apply to receive an absentee ballot application for each election.
  • Pennsylvania sends an application to all voters on its permanent list at the beginning of each year and upon submittal of the application the voter will receive an absentee ballot for all elections that year. 
  • Massachusetts and Missouri send permanently disabled voters absentee ballot applications each election.
  • Alaska (Alaska Admin. Code tit. 6, § 25.650) permits the election supervisor to designate a person as a permanent absentee voter if: the voter resides in a remote area where distance, terrain, or other natural conditions deny the voter reasonable access to the polling place; the voter’s permanent residence is in an institution serving the aged or persons with disabilities; or the voter is disabled and has required to be designated as a permanent absentee voter.

Mail Voting

Five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington—conduct all elections by mail. A ballot is automatically mailed to every registered voter in advance of Election Day, and traditional in-person voting precincts are not available. However, these states still provide one or more locations for voters to return mail ballots, vote in-person if they would like, and receive other voter services. 

Hawaii (HB 1248 in 2019) and Utah are the most recent additions to this list and will begin sending mail ballots to all eligible voters in 2020. Utah has given local jurisdictions the choice of whether or not to hold elections by-mail. In 2018 27 of the 29 counties chose this option, and in 2020 it is anticipated that all 29 will holld all-mail ballot elections. 

Nineteen other states allow certain elections to be held by mail. More information can be found on NCSL's All-Mail Elections (aka Vote-By-Mail) webpage.

Early and Absentee Voting in Your State

Are you looking for information on how to vote early or by absentee ballot in an upcoming election? While NCSL is not involved in holding elections and cannot provide information or advice on how, when or where to vote in your state, we are pleased to provide this link to a page which will direct you to the answers you need regarding your state's laws: Can I Vote?

Military Voters

All states permit members of the military who are stationed overseas, their dependents, and other U.S. citizens living abroad to vote by absentee ballot. For more information, please visit the Overseas Vote Foundation.

Additional Resources