Why Elections Need Both Absentee and In-Person Voting
By Amanda Zoch
Since the COVID-19 pandemic came to our shores, mail and absentee voting have saturated state and national conversations about elections. The Canvass gave mail and absentee voting the lion’s share of our attention last month, too, and there’s no doubt that many people (including poll workers) are opting to vote at home and avoid polling places during this spring’s primary elections.
With so many policymakers and election officials encouraging more absentee voting and even debating the value and feasibility of “going all-mail,” it is worth noting that all elections are hybrid—every state has some combination of mail voting and in-person voting.
States that rely on in-person voting all have some mail and absentee voting because all states offer absentee ballots to those who will be away from home, hospitalized or otherwise unable to vote on Election Day. In West Virginia, about 2% of voters requested absentee ballots and cast their 2016 general election ballots by mail, according to data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. That same year, nearly 49% of Mainers voted outside the polling place by using the state’s provisions for no-excuse absentee voting.
Even the five states that conduct all elections by mail—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington—maintain some in-person voting. In Colorado, for example, approximately 7% of voters in the 2016 general election did so in person at voter service and polling centers either on Election Day or during early voting. Fewer than 1% of Washingtonians voted in person, but that still means that over 12,000 people chose to visit the polls on Election Day.
Especially in states where mail voting is the norm, some may wonder: Who chooses to vote in person and why?
Voters with Disabilities
There’s no doubt that polling places can present challenges for voters with disabilities, as the U.S. Government Accountability Office has shown in its 2017 report. But mail and absentee voting aren’t necessarily better options for everyone. After all, there’s no “one-size fits all” approach to making voting accessible (a point emphasized by many speakers during the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s 2020 Elections Disability, Accessibility and Security Forum). Disabilities vary widely, and every person with a disability has different needs and different technology available to them. While some voters with disabilities may be able to request large-print or Braille mail and absentee ballots, or receive their ballots electronically, others may require electronic ballot marking systems or other accommodations available only when voting in person. In fact, some people with disabilities may prefer to vote in person, using accessible voting technology located at a polling place or vote center in order to ensure they can cast ballots privately and independently.
Voters with Literacy or Language Barriers
Many voters require ballot instructions in languages other than English. While translated materials may be provided with mail or absentee ballots, bilingual and multilingual poll workers may be able to provide more direct assistance to voters with questions. A ballot and its instructions can also be intimidating for some people with low literacy, and—as the Center for Civic Design has found—printed information is not enough. These voters benefit from access to more dynamic translation services, including trained poll workers. Well-designed ballots and clear instructions can also help these voters.
Voters with No Permanent Address or Mail Delivery
Voters without permanent addresses, such as people experiencing homelessness, and voters who do not have mail delivery, such as many Native Americans, benefit from in-person voting options because mail ballots may not be able to reach them. Polling places are often far from reservations and rural communities—before 2016, voters on the Duck Valley Reservation in Idaho faced a nearly 200-mile round-trip to vote in person—which has prompted some states to provide additional polling places on tribal lands. Some Native American voters may also fall into the previous category, as reservations have a higher proportion of voters with low levels of literacy, and those voters may be better served with in-person guidance.
In states with same day voter registration, new voters (or new-to-the-area voters) may find themselves heading to the polls to first register and then cast their ballots. While there are other remote ways to register to vote, same day registration can only take place in person.
In addition to voters who need to vote in person, the pull of civic tradition may make some people want to vote in person. Many choose to vote in person because that’s how they’ve always done it. Other people—you know who you are!—might head to the polls just to ensure they can sport an “I Voted” sticker (if one doesn’t come with a mailed ballot, that is).
Completing one’s civic duty in the company of one’s neighbors can illuminate our individual votes as a more tangible contribution to a larger, democratic process. As long-time journalist and author of "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime" Lou Cannon reflects, “since 2000 when I became a freelancer and had more control of my schedule, I've made it a point to vote in my precinct place, a church a few blocks from here. I liked seeing the earnest poll workers and the red-white-and-blue bunting and enjoyed pasting an ‘I Voted’ sticker on my shirt.”
On a personal note, this author votes by mail in Colorado. While I appreciate the ease of completing a ballot on my own time, I must admit that voting feels like less of an occasion now than it did when I trekked to the polls in Minnesota and Indiana. (But I faced lines and less flexible hours then—it turns out there may always be trade-offs, even for an average voter like myself.)
Of course, the current pandemic poses significant challenges to in-person voting. Election officials have struggled to staff polling places—an issue that will likely continue. Some people have suggested using the National Guard (which Wisconsin pioneered), youth poll workers, or closing schools on Election Day and recruiting teachers to serve as poll workers.
States have also been working to make in-person voting as safe as possible with added hygiene and social distancing guidelines. Utah is poised to make one of the biggest shifts in this regard—the legislature passed a bill (currently awaiting the governor’s signature) that would eliminate in-person voting for the Beehive State’s 2020 primary, instead offering drive-up voting on Election Day.
While some people who prefer in-person voting may choose to vote by mail or absentee ballot due to stay-at-home orders, others will still need to vote in person (or in their car?) this primary season. Even as states seek to modify their proportion of in-person to mail/absentee voting, both options are likely to be part of a complete election system for the foreseeable future.
Amanda Zoch is a policy specialist in the Elections and Redistricting Program and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow.
From the Chair
This month we spoke with Louisiana Senator Sharon Hewitt (R) who represents District 1, which includes portions of St. Tammany, Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. She has served in the Senate since 2016.
How did you get selected to chair the Senate Committee on Senate & Governmental Affairs?
In Louisiana, the Senate president makes all of the committee chairman appointments. I was fortunate to have a Senate president who recognized the importance of this committee and gave me a chance to lead. As an engineer by training, I have a good sense of numbers, and that background may have been an asset with redistricting coming up.
What are the major election priorities for you and Louisiana?
One of the biggest things happening in Louisiana is that we’re on the verge of buying new election machines. We’re one of the few states that does not have a paper record as a check on our machines, and the machines themselves are quite dated. So we’re in the process of preparing an RFQ [Request for Quotation] to get funding and replace our machines.
Everyone is also concerned about cybersecurity. So as we choose new machines, cybersecurity concerns are at the top of our list. We have a responsibility to get the best technology and best thinking to make sure our voter files and voting processes are protected. The state has had cyberattacks—though not on the election system—and that gives us reasons to be careful.
Louisiana has a different primary system than most states—could you say a little about that?
The jungle primary makes things a little unusual in Louisiana. Everyone runs on same primary ballot. Then, the top two vote-getters run against each other in our December general election. This causes Louisiana to be one of the last states to complete presidential and congressional elections.
There’s been some talk about returning to a closed party primary system here, where we might model ourselves after other states with party primaries in the spring. There may be legislation introduced in the next session to address that.
What effect has the coronavirus pandemic had on Louisiana’s elections, and how is your state handling its rescheduled presidential primary?
In Louisiana, we have postponed our presidential primary elections twice—from March until June and now to July. State law allows the secretary of state to propose an Emergency Election Plan (EEP), which he has done. On April 27, the governor and legislature approved the plan, which provides greater access for voters to request absentee ballots due to COVID-19, while also resisting the call by some legislators to expand to universal mail ballots. Additionally, the proposal expands early voting from one week to 13 days, removes polling locations from nursing homes and senior centers and provides personal protective equipment and social distancing guidelines to polling locations.
What are you most proud of in terms of Louisiana’s elections?
I think our elections for the most part have been very secure. We certainly haven’t had any hanging chads or big lawsuits where results were questioned or anything like that. We think we have a good system, but we know the machines are dated and getting more difficult to maintain. We’re interested in new technology while also protecting the integrity of the system. We’re learning from other states and hoping to be the tip of the spear this year. Buying new machines is an opportunity to work with companies with successful R&D processes to make sure we can have the best system money can buy.
It’s going to be a busy year!
What is a secrecy sleeve for a mail or absentee ballot?
A secrecy sleeve—sometimes known as a privacy sleeve, inner envelope or identification envelope—is a paper document intended to protect a voter’s privacy by separating their identity and signature from their ballot. After completing a mail or absentee ballot, a voter places it inside the secrecy sleeve, which then goes inside the return envelope.
Sixteen states require secrecy sleeves, and other states or jurisdictions may choose to use them. In Maryland, for example, local election boards can choose whether to include secrecy sleeves (MD Code, Election Law, § 9-310), and Colorado’s ballot mailings include an instruction sheet that can double as a secrecy sleeve if the voter so chooses.
The additional paper may increase the cost of ballot mailings, however. And, according to Amber McReynolds of the National Vote at Home Institute, secrecy sleeves are unnecessary if the election jurisdiction has a different process to ensure a voter’s privacy when ballots are opened.
Updated “Voting Outside the Polling Place” Report
NCSL's recent report on mail and absentee voting has been updated to include 18 new tables with background information on no-excuse absentee voting, third-party registration drives, drop boxes, application and ballot verification procedures and much more. You can find the complete list of tables in the penultimate section, “Tables.”
Candidates and Campaigns Sue for Ballot Access
In response to the coronavirus putting a halt to signature gathering, lawsuits have been filed in multiple states by candidates and initiative campaigns. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the number of signatures candidates need to collect be reduced by 50%. A state court judge in Colorado ordered that a candidate for U.S. Senate be placed on the ballot despite failing to collect the required number of signatures. Lawsuits have been brought by initiative campaigns in Arkansas and Montana seeking similar accommodations.
West Virginia Legalizes Gambling on Elections, Then Reconsiders
West Virginia briefly became the first state to allow wagers to be placed on U.S. elections. The West Virginia Lottery approved a request by the company FanDuel to allow betting on elections but reversed the decision hours later.
Coronavirus Disrupts Legislative Sessions
So far this year, at least 22 state legislatures have postponed their legislative sessions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Eleven state legislatures have implemented rule changes allowing for remote voting or meetings. For more information on this topic please visit NCSL’s resource on Legislative Operations.
New York Cancels Presidential Primary
New York became the first state to cancel its presidential primary, after a decision by the State Board of Elections removed all candidates other than Joe Biden from the ballot, effectively ending the primary. The state primary will proceed as scheduled on June 23, and Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued an executive order directing that all voters be sent an absentee ballot application for the upcoming election.
Monthly Dose of Cybersecurity
The Senate Intelligence Committee issued Volume 4 of its report on the Intel Community Assessment of Russian Interference in the 2016 election. The report, much of which is redacted, unanimously concludes that the determination Russia interfered in the 2016 election was warranted. The fifth and final volume is still set to be released.
Some States Test Internet Voting
With the COVID-19 pandemic impeding traditional in-person voting, some states are turning to internet-based options to allow voters to cast their ballots from home. Delaware will allow disabled voters to return ballots electronically in its upcoming primary, becoming the second state to do so, along with West Virginia. Cybersecurity experts, however, warn that ballots transmitted over the internet may not be secure.
Two New Reports on Elections
The Ad Hoc Committee for 2020 Election Fairness and Legitimacy has released a report, “Fair Elections During a Crisis,” which includes recommendations for advancing the legitimacy of, and the public’s confidence in, the November general election. The report offers detailed guidance for lawyers, journalists and editors, tech companies, legislators, non-profits and citizens. In another recent report, "Ensuring Safe Elections," a bipartisan team provides a cost analysis for elections in five states (Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania). The authors find that state and local governments need more federal funding than what Congress provided through the CARES Act in order to run safe and secure elections in 2020.
Center for Tech and Civic Life Training Series
The Center for Tech and Civic Life has launched a new training series, “Communicating Trusted Election Information,” building off the #TrustedInfo2020 campaign by the National Association of Secretaries of State. The series is being provided at no cost and will cover best practices around election websites, social media and communications.
From the NCSL Elections Team
Our team continues to work from home, serving our members as always and adapting to new developments and challenges in the elections world. We are updating our COVID-19 and Elections page daily and have developed two webinar series: One on redistricting and another on voting outside the polling place—we’d love to connect with you on them.
Wendy Underhill, Brian Hinkle 404 and Mandy Zoch