At least 22 states have provisions allowing certain elections to be conducted entirely by mail. For these elections, all registered voters receive a ballot in the mail. The voter marks the ballot, puts it in a secrecy envelope or sleeve and then into a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior of the mailing envelope, and returns the package via mail or by dropping it off.
Ballots are mailed out well ahead of Election Day, and thus voters have an “election period,” not just a single day, to vote. All-mail elections can be thought of as absentee voting for everyone. This system is also referred to as “vote by mail.”
Three of the 22 states—Oregon (2000), Washington (2011) and Colorado (2013)—hold all elections entirely by mail. Other states permit all-mail elections in certain circumstances, such as for special districts, municipal elections, when candidates are unopposed, or at the discretion of the county clerk. See below for state-by-state statutes.
Generally, states begin with providing all-mail elections only in certain circumstances, and then add additional opportunities as citizens become familiar with procedures. Oregon’s vote-by-mail timeline includes four times that the legislature acted prior to the 1998 citizens’ vote that made Oregon the first all-mail election state.
- Voter convenience and satisfaction—Citizens can vote at home, and take all the time they need to study the issues. Voters often express enthusiasm for all-mail elections.
- Financial savings—Jurisdictions may save money because they no longer need to staff traditional polling places with poll workers.
- Turnout—Because of convenience, turnout may increase. Although this has proven to be true for small elections, studies don't show a marked increase in turnout in larger general elections.
- Tradition—The civic experience of voting with neighbors at a local school, church, or other polling place no longer exists. Research shows that voters show a preference for voting in the manner that is already familiar to them.
- Security—During all-mail elections (and absentee voting), coercion by family members or others might occur.
- Financial considerations—All-mail elections greatly increase printing costs for an election. Additionally, jurisdictions must have appropriate equipment to read paper ballots, and changing from electronic equipment to equipment that can scan paper ballots can be expensive.
State-by-State Statutes on All-Mail Elections
Alaska: Elections other than general, party primary or municipal (Ala. Code §15.20.800)
Arizona: Special districts may conduct elections by mail (Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. §16-558)
Arkansas: Primary elections in which only one candidate has filed for the position by a filing deadline and there are no other ballot issues to be submitted for consideration (Ark. Stat. Ann. §7-7-313)
California: When there are 250 or fewer voters registered to vote in a precinct (Cal. Elec. Code §3005); local, special or consolidated elections that meet certain criteria (Cal. Elec. Code §4000); and in a pilot program, Yolo County may use all-mail elections for statewide primary and general elections (Cal. Elec. Code §4001)
Colorado: All elections (CRS §1-5-401)
Florida: Referendum elections at the county, city, school district or special district level (Fla. Stat. §101.6102) Also, governor may call for a mail ballot election after issuing an executive order declaring a state of emergency or impending emergency (see S 866, 2008)
Hawaii: Any federal, state, or county election held other than on the date of a regularly scheduled primary or general election (HRS §11-91.5)
Idaho: A precinct which contains no more than 125 registered electors at the last general election may be designated by the board of county commissioners a mail ballot precinct no later than April 1 in an even-numbered year (Idaho Code §34-308)
Kansas: Nonpartisan elections at which no candidate is elected, retained or recalled and which is not held on the same date as another election (KSA Stat. §25-431 et seq.)
Maryland: Special elections (Md. Election Code §9-501 et seq.)
Minnesota: Elections conducted by a municipality having fewer than 400 registered voters on June 1 of an election year and not located in a metropolitan county (Minn. Stat. §204B)
Missouri: Nonpartisan issue elections at which no candidate is elected, retained or recalled and in which all qualified voters of one political subdivision are the only voters eligible to vote (Mo. Rev. Stat. §115.652 et seq.)
Montana: Any election other than a regularly scheduled federal, state, or county election; a special federal or state election, unless authorized by the legislature; or a regularly scheduled or special election when another election in the political subdivision is taking place at the polls on the same day (MCA 13-19-101 et seq.)
Nebraska: Special ballot measure elections that meet certain criteria, held by a political subdivision (NRS §32-952)
Nevada: Whenever there were not more than 20 voters registered in a precinct for the last preceding general election (NRS §293.213)
New Jersey: A municipality with a population of 500 or fewer persons, according to the latest federal decennial census, may conduct all elections by mail (NJRS §19.62-1)
New Mexico: Any bond election, any election on the imposition of a mill levy or a property tax rate for a specified purpose or any special election at which no candidates are to be nominated for or elected to office (NMSA §1-23-1 et seq.)
North Dakota: Counties may conduct any election by mail (ND Cent. Code §16.1-11.1-01 et seq.)
Oregon: All elections (ORS §254.465)
Utah: Jurisdictions may decide to conduct elections entirely by mail (Utah Code Ann. §20A-3-302)
Washington: All elections (WRC §29A.40)
Wyoming: Counties may decide to conduct elections entirely by mail (Wyo. Stat. 22-29-115)