The NCSL Blog


By Wendy Underhill

Does California use vote-by-mail ballots? That question is harder to answer than you might think.

Illustration on voting from homeFirst, what is vote-by-mail? There’s no approved glossary of election terms.

“Vote-by-mail” in one state is “absentee voting” in many others and even “advance voting” in another. A new phrase, “voting at home,” is gaining ground to reference the same act. And some people use “vote by mail” to mean the states that mail a ballot to all voters, rather than just to voters who ask for one. That too has other names, none of which are entirely accurate: “all-mail voting,” “universal mail-in voting” and my own phrase, “mostly mail voting” (which hasn’t caught on, I’m sorry to say).

Semantics aside, it’s hard to say if California is a state that uses “all-mailed ballot elections” (that’s the Golden State’s phrase) or not. The overall law in California is, and has been, that counties can decide whether or not to run their elections by mail. But this year, because of COVID-19, the legislature enacted AB 860, which requires all counties to run the November election by mail.

California is just one of many states where the general election may be managed under different policies than elections in years past, or elections in the future. In other words, legislation or executive action making this-year-only changes are common.

Because the “forever” laws aren’t necessarily changing, NCSL has just published a webpage that captures the temporary changes: Absentee and Mail Voting Policies in Effect for the 2020 Election. By going this route, we’re able to hold steady our resources on permanent absentee/mail voting laws in Voting Outside the Polling Place.

To the best of our ability, we plan to keep up with changes on who is eligible to use an absentee ballot; which states plan to mail ballot request forms to voters, who can then decide for themselves if they’d like to vote from their couch or vote in person; and states, like California, that are temporarily joining the ranks of the all-mail states.

Curious? Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington have permanent all-mail policies; in addition to California, Nevada, New Jersey and Vermont are adopting all-mail elections for this year only.

Wendy Underhill is the director of NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program. Brian Hinkle created the new webpage.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.