Voting Outside the Polling Place: Absentee, All-Mail and other Voting at Home Options

5/19/2020

voting at home

Most states offer at least one method for any eligible voter to cast a ballot before Election Day. While some states provide early in-person voting, this webpage addresses absentee voting and all-mail voting.

Please see our upcoming webinar series on this topic.

Absentee Voting: All states will mail an absentee ballot to certain voters who request one.  In two-thirds of the states, any qualified voter may vote absentee without offering an excuse, and in one-third of the states, an excuse is required. 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.

All-Mail Voting: In a handful of states, a ballot is automatically mailed to every eligible voter (no request or application is necessary). Polling places may also be available for voters who would like to vote in-person. Other states may permit the all-mail option for specific types of elections.

As for early in-person voting, it is available in four-fifths of the states. In these states, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day.  Please see our page on State Laws Governing Early Voting.

NOTE: This page should be used for general informational purposes only. It is not intended as a legal advice. Please contact your local election officials for information on voting in your jurisdiction. 

Introduction

When, where and how Americans vote has evolved over the course of the last 250 years. When the United States first came into being, voters would voice their choices on courthouse steps, out loud and very much not in secret. Toward the end of the 19th century, a paper ballot became common and was increasingly cast in private at a neighborhood polling place. Times are changing again. The majority of states now permit voters to cast ballots before Election Day, either in person at designated early voting sites, or via a ballot that has been mailed to the voter’s home. In all states, to varying degrees, voting now takes place not just on one day during a certain time period, but over a series of days and weeks before the election, as well.

Some states provide an early, in-person voting period; for information on this option, please see NCSL’s webpage State Laws Governing Early Voting.

All states allow voters who have a reason they can’t vote on Election Day to request a ballot in advance, and many states allow all voters to request a ballot in advance without requiring a reason. States vary on what extent they offer these options, including some states that deliver ballots to all voters (while maintaining some in-person voting locations for those that prefer to vote in person or may need assistance). This page goes into detail about each of these variations and how absentee/mailed ballots are handled in states.

A Note on Terminology

A ballot that has been sent to a voter and is voted outside of a polling place or election official’s office has traditionally been referred to as an “absentee ballot” and the person who votes that ballot has been called an “absentee voter.” This terminology is common in state law and comes from the concept that voters would use this option only when they were “absent” from their neighborhood polling place on Election Day. As time has gone on and more and more voters request a ballot in advance as their default voting method, and as states have begun offering more opportunities for voters to do so, the terminology has evolved. Some states refer to “advance ballots,” “mailed ballots,” “by-mail ballots,” “mail ballots” or “vote-by-mail ballots.”

In this report NCSL has chosen to use “absentee/mailed ballots” to reflect the traditional terminology and also the evolution of the use of the term. Note that this term refers to ballots that are mailed out to voters by election officials and does not indicate the method voters choose to return the ballot. Often these “absentee/mailed ballots” are returned via methods other than mail, i.e. in person at a voting location or at a secure drop box.

What Are Some Possible Advantages and Disadvantages to Voting by Mail?

As legislators consider policies that allow more people to “vote at home,” or vote by mail, or vote absentee, they will be weighing advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages

  • Voter convenience and satisfaction. Citizens can review their ballots at home and take all the time they need to study the issues. Voters often express enthusiasm for this option. See this survey from Oregon Public Broadcasting on the Beaver State’s all-mail voting system that showed 87% support, for example.
  • Financial savings. Jurisdictions may save money because moving toward more absentee/mailed ballot voting reduces the need to staff and equip traditional polling places. A 2016 study of Colorado from The Pew Charitable Trusts found costs decreased an average of 40% in five election administration categories across 46 of Colorado’s 64 counties (those with available cost data) after it implemented all-mail ballot elections. (Note: The study examines a number of reforms Colorado enacted in 2013, with all-mail elections being the most significant. Others included instituting same-day registration and shortening the time length for residency in the state for voting purposes.)
  • Turnout. Some reports indicate that because of convenience, voter turnout increases. See this 2013 report on all-mail ballot elections in Washington and this 2018 report on all-mail ballot elections in Utah. Effects on turnout can be more pronounced for lower turnout elections (local elections, for example) and for low propensity voters (those who are registered but do not vote as frequently). Evidence for increased turnout based on absentee/mailed ballot voting, instead of all-mail ballot elections, is not as clear.

Disadvantages

  • Financial considerations. Sending ballots by mail increases printing costs for an election. There may be up-front costs of changing to different vote-counting equipment, although overall fewer voting machines are required in jurisdictions that have more absentee/mailed ballot voting and count ballots at a centralized location. If a state chooses to pay for return postage for these ballots that could also increase costs.
  • An increase in voter “errors” or “residual votes.” When marking a ballot outside of an in-person voting location, a voter can potentially mark more selections in a contest than the maximum number allowed (called an overvote) or mark less than the maximum number allowed, including marking nothing for that contest (called an undervote). Political scientists often refer to these overvotes and undervotes as errors or residual votes. Voting equipment at in-person voting locations will notify voters if this happens and allow the voter the opportunity to correct it. When returning an absentee/mailed ballot there is not a similar mechanism to inform voters of errors, so there tend to be more overvotes and undervotes. Damaged absentee/mailed ballots may be harder to correct as well. Procedural choices can mitigate this effect to some extent.
  • Tradition. The civic experience of voting with neighbors at a local school, church or other polling place is lost when voting with an absentee/mailed ballot. Some point out that the experience can be shared with family members at home in a way that isn’t possible with in-person voting. 
  • Disparate effect on some populations. Mail delivery is not uniform across the nation. Native Americans on reservations in particular may have difficulty with all-mail elections. Many do not have street addresses, and their P.O. boxes may be shared. Low-income citizens move more frequently and keeping addresses current can pose problems. Literacy can be an issue for some voters, as well, since election materials are often written at a college level. (Literacy can be a problem for voters at traditional polling place locations, too.)
  • Opportunities for coercion. If a voter is marking a ballot at home, and not in the presence of election officials, there may be more opportunity for coercion by family members or others.
  • Slower result reporting. Ballots may continue to arrive up to and even after Election Day (depending on state law), so it can take days (or longer) after the election before election officials are able to count all ballots. Note that final results are typically not official until a week or two after the election. During this time, all states are examining provisional ballots and ballots coming from military or overseas voters, as well. Policy choices can mitigate this effect.

Qualifying for an Absentee Ballot

The concept of voting “absentee” first came about during the Civil War as a way for soldiers to cast ballots back in their home states. The idea of allowing military voters to cast a ballot “in absentia” is still one of the driving factors for states allowing absentee ballots. All states, by federal law, are required to send absentee/mailed ballots to military and overseas voters for federal elections (see the 1986 Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA)).

Aside from military and overseas voters, 16 states only permit certain voters to request an absentee ballot by mail when they have an “excuse” for not being able to vote at the polls on Election Day. More details on these states can be found in the table below. Note, however, that many states that require an excuse to obtain an absentee ballot do provide early voting opportunities for voters to cast a ballot in-person before Election Day.

More than two-thirds of the states have “no-excuse absentee” voting, which means any voter can request a mail ballot without providing an excuse, and a few send all voters ballots by mail.

In this section you will find:

Which states do not require an excuse to vote absentee or by mail?

The following 34 states and Washington, D.C., offer "no-excuse" absentee/mailed ballot 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, Virginia, Washington*, Wisconsin and Wyoming. For more details, visit Table 1: States with No-Excuse Absentee Voting.

*Designates a state that sends mailed ballots to all eligible voters. Voters don’t need to request a mailed ballot but automatically receive one. See the section on all-mail elections below.

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

What are the excuses to vote absentee in states that require an excuse?

All states permit voters who will be outside of their home county to vote absentee/by mailed ballot, as well as voters with an illness or disability who know ahead of time that they won’t be able to make it to the polls. It is also common to provide this option for elderly voters. 

Many states also permit voters to request an absentee/mailed ballot in case of an emergency situation, such as an unforeseen illness, confinement to a medical facility or an accident resulting in injury. More details on these situations can be found on NCSL’s page on Absentee Voting in Case of a Personal Emergency.

Beyond that, there are a variety of acceptable excuses in states, summarized in the table below and on Table 2: Excuses to Vote Absentee.

Note: This chart is meant to compare and summarize the acceptable excuses for states that require an excuse to vote absentee. Since it is comparative, it is not comprehensive of all the excuses in a given state. Visit state election webpages for additional information on a given state’s requirements. 

Excuses to Vote Absentee/By Mailed Ballot

State Out of County on Election Day Illness or Disability Persons Older Than a Certain Age Work Shift is During all Voting Hours Student living Outside of County Election Worker or Poll Watcher Religious Belief or Practice ACP* Participant Incarcerated (but Still Qualified to Vote) Juror Duty

Alabama

Ala. Code § 17-11-3

         

Arkansas

Ark. Code Ann. § 7-5-402
               

Connecticut

C.G.S.A. § 9-135
           

Delaware

15 Del. Code §5502
           

Indiana

Ind. Code §3-11-10-24
65+      

Kentucky

Ken. Rev. Stat.

§117.085(1)(a), §117.077
65+      

Louisiana

LSA-R.S. 18:1303
65+  

Massachusetts

M.G.L.A. 54 § 86
           

Mississippi

Miss. Code Ann. § 23-15-715
65+              

Missouri

V.A.M.S. 115.277
       

New Hampshire

N.H. Rev. Stat. § 657:1
           

New York

§ 8-400
             

South Carolina

§ 7-15-320
65+    

Tennessee

T. C. A. § 2-6-201
60+    

Texas

V.T.C.A., Election Code § 82.001 et seq.
65+          

West Virginia

W. Va. Code, § 3-3-1
"Advanced age"      

*ACP stands for Address Confidentiality Program, which protects the information of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. (Learn more about ACPs here.)

Who qualifies for permanent absentee ballot status?

Some states permit voters to join a permanent absentee/mailed ballot voting list. Voters who request to be on this list will automatically receive an absentee/mailed ballot for each election. This option may be offered to all voters, or to a limited number of voters based on certain criteria described below.

A permanent absentee list is sometimes known as a “single sign-up” option, since a voter needs to sign up only once to receive an absentee/mailed ballot for all future elections.

Five states plus D.C. permit any voter to join a permanent absentee/single sign-up list and will mail that voter an absentee/mailed ballot for each election: Arizona, California, District of Columbia, Montana, Nevada and New Jersey.

Some states without permanent absentee lists allow the request to last for more than one election.

Ten states permit voters with permanent disabilities to use a “single sign-up” option, and, once on the list, the state sends them absentee/mailed ballots: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Louisiana and Wisconsin also make this option available to senior voters. In some cases, a note from a physician or other indication of a permanent disability may be required.

An additional six states automatically send absentee voter applications to voters on a permanent/single sign-up list. This differs from the category above since voters must return the application before receiving an absentee/mailed ballot:

  • Minnesota and Michigan permit any voter to apply to receive an absentee/mailed 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/mailed ballot for all elections that year. 
  • Massachusetts and Missouri send permanently disabled voters’ absentee/mailed 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 been required to be designated as a permanent absentee voter.

Find more information on Table 3: States with Permanent Absentee Voting for All Voters, Voters with Permanent Disabilities, and/or Senior Voters.

How and when is a voter removed from a permanent absentee ballot list?

Once voters opt in to the list, they are automatically mailed a ballot for subsequent elections. Below is a summary of the ways in which a voter who is on the permanent ballot list can be removed. Visit Table 4: State Laws on Removing Voters From Permanent Absentee Lists for more details. 

State When Is a Voter Removed from the Permanent Absentee List?

Arizona
Ariz. Rev. Stat. §16-544(H)

After a voter has requested to be included on the permanent early voting list, the voter shall be sent an early ballot by mail automatically for any election at which a voter at that residence address is eligible to vote until any of the following occurs:

1. The voter requests in writing to be removed from the permanent early voting list.

2. The voter's registration or eligibility for registration is moved to inactive status or canceled as otherwise provided by law.

3. The notice sent by the county recorder or other officer in charge of elections is returned undeliverable and the county recorder or officer in charge of elections is unable to contact the voter to determine the voter's continued desire to remain on the list.

California
Elect. Code §3206

If the voter fails to return an executed vote-by-mail ballot in four consecutive statewide general elections, the voter's name shall be deleted from the list.

District of Columbia
D.C. Mun. Regis. Tit. 3, § 720.4

A duly registered voter's request to permanently receive an absentee ballot shall be honored until:

(a) The voter submits a written request to no longer receive absentee ballots.

(b) The voter is no longer a qualified elector.

(c) Any mail sent to the voter is returned to the board as undeliverable.

(d) The voter fails to return a voted absentee ballot for two back-to-back elections in which he or she is eligible to vote.

Hawaii
H.R.S. §15-4(h)

A voter's permanent absentee voter status shall be terminated if any of the following conditions apply:

(1) The voter requests in writing that such status be terminated.

(2) The voter dies, loses voting rights, registers to vote in another jurisdiction, or is otherwise disqualified from voting.

(3) The voter's absentee ballot, voter notification postcard, or any other election mail is returned to the clerk as undeliverable for any reason.

(4) The voter does not return a voter ballot by 6 p.m. on Election Day in both the primary and general election of an election year.

Minnesota
Minn. Stat. §203B.04

A voter's permanent absentee status ends and automatic ballot application delivery must be terminated on:

(1) The voter's written request.

(2) The voter's death.

(3) Return of an absentee ballot as undeliverable.

(4) A change in the voter's status to “challenged” or “inactive” in the statewide voter registration system.

Montana
M.C.A. §13-13-212

An elector may request to be removed from the absentee ballot list for subsequent elections by notifying the election administrator in writing.

The election administrator shall biennially mail a forwardable address confirmation form to each elector who is listed in the national change of address system of the U.S. postal service as having changed the elector's address. … If the form is not completed and returned or if the elector does not respond using the options provided in subsection (4)(b)(v), the election administrator shall remove the elector from the absentee ballot list.

New Jersey
N.J.S.A. 19:63-3

A county clerk may not remove a voter's name from the list unless:

(i) The voter is no longer listed in the official register.

(ii) The voter cancels the voter's absentee status.

(iii) The voter's name is removed on the date specified by the voter on the absentee ballot application form.

(iv) The county clerk is required to remove the voter's name from the list under Subsection (7)(c).

(7)(c) A county clerk shall remove a voter's name from the list if the voter fails to vote in two consecutive regular general elections.

Requesting an Absentee Ballot

All states provide an absentee/mailed ballot for voters upon request. Some of these states require a voter to have an excuse in order to do so, such as being out of the state on Election Day or having a permanent disability (see section above). Other states permit any voter to request a ballot with no excuse required. A handful of states also send out ballots to all eligible voters. 

Most states, except for the all-mail states, require voters to submit an application in order to obtain a delivered ballot. The ways in which voters may request a ballot vary, as do the deadlines for submitting the application to the local election official. Some states regulate who can distribute or collect applications for delivered ballots as well.

Once the application is received, states have a process for verifying that the application did indeed come from the intended voter before sending a ballot to that voter. The timelines for delivering ballots to voters vary, with some states beginning the process of delivering ballots 45 days (or earlier) before an election, and others delivering ballots within a month before the election.

Note: The states that send ballots to all eligible voters, including those that will do so for the first time in 2020 (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington) are not included in this section because an application is not required.

In this section you will find:

How can voters request an absentee ballot?

The ways in which voters may submit absentee/mailed ballot applications vary among states. All states will permit a voter to submit an application by mail (usually via an approved form) or in person at a local election official’s office. Many states require the application or request to be in writing, either via an official application form or by written request in the mail or by email. Some states offer an alternative, though.

Twelve states have an online portal that permits voters to request an absentee/mailed ballot: Delaware, D.C., Florida, Louisiana, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia. Some of these states used legislation to create this option and others did not. For more details, see Table 6: States with Web-Based Absentee Ballot Applications.

  • West Virginia and D.C. allow voters to download an application form and then return it as a scanned document.
  • Wisconsin permit voters to send an email with a scan of an absentee ballot request form and proof of ID to their county registrar.
  • In Arizona many counties provide an online portal, though it is not available on the state level.
  • Arizona, Florida, Maine, Mississippi, Vermont and Wyoming also accept phone requests.

Can third party individuals or groups distribute absentee ballot applications and collect complete applications?

As part of get-out-the-vote efforts or a civic engagement program some organizations like to assist voters in requesting and returning absentee/mailed ballot applications. Some states place restrictions on these activities by prohibiting third-party groups from distributing or collecting absentee/mailed ballot applications, or designate deadlines or turnaround times for groups that do this. These are often meant to encourage third-party groups to submit completed applications in a timely manner to ensure that voters receive absentee/mailed ballots in a timely manner.

The following states and D.C. place no restrictions, or do not specify restrictions, on third-party groups distributing or collecting completed absentee/mailed ballot applications:

  • Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Idaho, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Virginia.

The following states permit third-party groups to distribute and collect completed absentee/mailed ballot applications, but specify deadlines or turnaround times:

  • In Arizona, applications collected by third parties must be submitted within six days of receipt, under penalty of $25 per day for each completed form withheld from submittal. Any person who knowingly fails to submit a completed early ballot request form before the submission deadline for the election immediately following the completion of the form is guilty of a class 6 felony (Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 16-542).
  • Any third party may collect absentee/mailed ballot applications in California, but they must be submitted with 72 hours of receipt (Cal. Election Code § 3008).
  • In Illinois, applications must be returned to the election authority within seven days of receipt, or within two days of receipt if within two weeks of the election. Failure to turn over an application is a petty offense with a fine of $100 per application (10 ILCS 5/19-3).
  • In Indiana, a person handling another voter’s absentee/mailed ballot application must indicate the date received by the voter and deliver it to the county election board within 10 days or by the application deadline (Ind. Code § 3-11-4-2).
  • Anyone may distribute and collect advance voting ballots in Kansas but must deliver any application within two days of completion (KSA § 25-1128).
  • Anyone may distribute and collect absentee/mailed ballot applications in Minnesota, but they must be returned to the election office within 10 days of completion (MN Stat § 203B.04).
  • In New Mexico, third parties may distribute/collect/solicit absentee/mailed ballot applications from voters so long as they are submitted within 48 hours of completion. A person who collects applications for mailed ballots and fails to submit them is guilty of a petty misdemeanor. A person who intentionally alters another voter’s completed application is guilt of a fourth-degree felony (N.M. Stat. Ann. § 1-6-4.3).

The following states place restrictions on third-party individuals or groups distributing absentee/mailed ballot applications:

  • In Alaska, third-party groups are restricted to supplying only their own affiliated members with an application (Alaska Stat. §15.20.081).
  • In Connecticut, third parties must register with the town clerk before distributing five or more applications. Unsolicited application mailings must meet certain criteria. No person shall pay or give any compensation to another person for distribution absentee/mailed ballot applications (Conn Gen Stat § 9-140).
  • In Nevada, a person who, six months before an election, intends to distribute more than 500 applications must use the prescribed secretary of state form, identify the person who is distributing the form, provide notice to the count clerk not later than 28 days before distributing such a form, and not mail such a form later than 35 days before the election (Nev. Rev. Stat. §293.3095).

Following are examples of restrictions, rules or penalties on third-party groups collecting absentee/mailed ballot applications:

  • In Alaska, an application may not be submitted to any intermediary who could control or delay the submission of the application or gather data on the applicant (Alaska Stat. §15.20.081).
  • In Alabama, only the voter may deliver her or his own completed application in person (Ala. Code §17-11-4).
  • In Arkansas, only a designated bearer, authorized agent or long-term care facility administrator of a voter may deliver absentee applications in person on behalf of voters (Ark. Code § 7-5-404).
  • In Georgia, applications may be submitted by immediate family members only on behalf of a physically disabled voter; proof of relationship must be provided (GA Code § 21-2-381).
  • In Mississippi, any person may apply for an absentee ballot on another voter’s behalf, but they must sign and print their name and address on the application. Only immediate family members of a voter may make application orally in person. No person may solicit ballot applications or absentee ballots for persons staying in any skilled nursing facility unless they are a family member or designated by the voter (Miss. Code Ann. § 23-15-625).
  • In New Hampshire, third parties may distribute and collect absentee applications so long as they use the prescribed form and identify themselves in communication with voter (N.H. Rev. Stat. §657:4).
  • Oklahoma prohibits delivering an absentee application for another voter unless the person is an authorized agent of an incapacitated voter (26 Okl. St. Ann. § 14-115.1).
  • In South Carolina, only an immediate family member may submit an application on behalf of a voter; a voter must request an application to receive one; and no third-party distribution is allowed (S.C. Code § 7-15-330).
  • In Tennessee, only one application may be furnished to a voter by the election commission; it is a class E felony to give an application to any person and a class A misdemeanor to give an unsolicited request for application to any person (Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-6-202).
  • In Texas, it is a felony to knowingly submit an application for a ballot by mail without the knowledge and authorization of the voter or alter the information provided by the voter on the application (V.T.C.A., Election Code §84.0041).

What are the deadlines for submitting an absentee ballot application?

In order to have enough time to receive an absentee/mailed ballot application, verify the information and send the ballot out, election officials usually need to receive applications a week or more before the election. Some states have statutory deadlines for absentee ballot applications closer to the election, but if a voter applies so close to the election it’s unlikely that this is enough turnaround time to receive the ballot in the mail. In emergency cases, absentee ballots can be requested after these deadlines. See NCSL’s webpage, Absentee Voting in Case of a Personal Emergency, for details.

NOTE: This table is intended for use by policymakers and is not intended to guide voters. If you need advice on absentee/mailed ballot voting, please contact your election official.

States with statutory absentee ballot application deadlines less than seven days before the election: States with a statutory application deadline seven days (one week) before the election: States with statutory application deadlines more than seven days before the election:

Alabama: Five days before the election

Arkansas

Alaska: 10 days before the election

Connecticut: Day before the election

California

Arizona: 11 days before the election

Delaware: Day before the election

District of Columbia

Florida: 10 days before the election

Georgia: Friday before the election

Kansas

Idaho: 11 days before the election

Illinois: Five days before the election

Kentucky

Indiana: 12 days before the election

Louisiana: Four days before the election

Maryland

Iowa: 11 days before the election

Maine: Three business days before the election

Nevada

Missouri: Second Wednesday before the election

Massachusetts: Day before the election

New Jersey

Nebraska: Third Friday before the election

Michigan: Friday before the election

New York

Rhode Island: 21 days before the election (emergency requests are possible within 20 days of the election)

Minnesota: Day before the election

North Carolina

Texas: 11 days before the election

Mississippi: No deadline; at voter’s discretion

Pennsylvania

 

Montana: Day before the election

Tennessee

 

New Hampshire: Day before the election

Virginia

 

New Mexico: Thursday before the election

   

North Dakota: No deadline; at voter’s discretion

   

Ohio: Three days before the election

   

Oklahoma: Wednesday before the election

   

South Carolina: Four days before the election

   

South Dakota: Day before the election

   

Vermont: Day before the election

   

West Virginia: Six days before the election

   

Wisconsin: Five days before the election

   

Wyoming: Day before the election

   

Note: The deadlines above are to request a mailed absentee ballot. In some states there are different deadlines to request an in-person absentee ballot. See NCSL’s State Laws Governing Early Voting webpage.

For more information, see Table 5: Applying for an Absentee Ballot, Including Third Party Registration Drives.

How do election officials verify applications for absentee ballots?

When election officials receive an application from a voter asking for an absentee/mailed ballot, they verify the identity and information of the voter before sending out the ballot. This is done in a variety of ways, but most commonly by verifying the applicant’s information in the statewide voter registration database. States may also conduct signature verification at this stage, to compare the voter’s signature on the application with the voter registration signature. This verification step is meant to ensure that it is in fact the voter who is requesting the absentee/mailed ballot.

  • Seventeen states compare an applicant’s information and eligibility against the voter registration record: Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.
  • Nineteen states conduct signature verification in addition to checking information and eligibility against the voter registration record: Arkansas, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Tennessee.
  • Four states and D.C. have a different way of verifying absentee/mailed ballot applications:
    • Alaska: The ballot is issued upon receipt of application (Alaska Stat. § 15.20.081).
    • District of Columbia: The voter’s signature on the application is considered affirmation that the information is correct (D.C. Mun. Regis. Tit. 3, § 720.5).
    • North Dakota: The ballot is issued upon receipt of application (ND Cent. Code 16.1-07-08).
    • South Carolina: The voter signs an oath as part of the application. Any person who fraudulently applies for an absentee ballot is guilty of a misdemeanor (S.C. Code § 7-15-340).
    • Vermont: The application is reviewed to ensure it is valid and complete (17 V.S.A. § 2533).
  • Five states require voters to provide identification or take additional steps as part of their application for an absentee/mailed ballot:
    • Alabama: The application must be accompanied by a copy of ID (Ala. Code § 17-9-30).
    • Louisiana: Information and eligibility is checked against voter registration and documentation provided by the applicant as to the reason for the request (LSA-R.S. 18:1307).
    • Mississippi: The application must be notarized. If the voter is temporarily or permanently disabled only the signature of a witness 18 years or older is required (Miss. Code Ann. § 23-15-715).
    • South Dakota: Applicants must either submit a copy of photo ID or sign a notarized oath. Upon receipt of the application, election officials verify that applicant’s information and eligibility against the voter registration record (SD Codified Law § 12-19-2).
    • Wisconsin: Ballot application information is verified with enclosed photo identification information (Wis. Stat. § 6.87(1)).

See Table 8: How States Verify Absentee Ballot Applications for more information.

When are absentee/mailed ballots sent to voters who request them?

Find more details on Table 7: When States Mail Out Absentee Ballots.

Returning a Voted Absentee Ballot

All states allow the return of absentee/mailed ballots through the mail. Almost all states also permit voters to return a delivered ballot in person at the office of the local election official (either the county election official or the town/city clerk, depending on who runs elections in the state). In addition, states can permit voters to drop off a voted absentee/mailed ballot at Election Day voting locations, or in secured drop boxes.

In this section you will find:

Which states permit voters to drop voted absentee ballots off at voting locations?

Voters may not live close to the county seat or the office of the local election official, so some states, particularly those who have seen an uptick in the use of delivered ballots by voters, provide other locations where a voter can drop off a ballot. This is particularly convenient for voters who have run out of time to send the ballot by mail and have it reach the election official by the deadline (see more on deadlines below).

  • Eleven states and D.C. permit ballots to be dropped off at any in-person voting location in the county: Arizona, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
  • Two states permit ballots to be dropped off at a polling place, but it must be the voter’s assigned precinct polling place on Election Day: New Hampshire and Vermont.

Which states provide ballot drop boxes?

Ten states provide ballot drop boxes in some or all counties: Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

A ballot drop box provides a location where voters can drop off mail ballots in sealed and signed envelopes. The drop boxes may be supervised or unsupervised with security features, such as cameras. Many states that permit or require this option typically set minimum requirements for where ballot drop boxes must be located, how many a county must have, hours they must be available and security standards. For example:

  • Arizona: Voters may drop off voted ballots at any polling site within the county during regular hours (A.R.S. § 16-548). A separate, secure early ballot container or alternate ballot box may be provided for this purpose. Election officials will determine the most accessible location for the early ballot container, but it should be placed so voters who wish to drop off voted absentee ballots may do so without interference with voters waiting in line to vote (Election Procedure Manual).
  • California: The secretary of state sets guidelines based on best practices for security measures and procedures, including, but not limited to, chain of custody, pick-up times, proper labeling, and security of vote-by-mail ballot drop boxes, that a county elections official may use if he or she establishes one or more vote-by-mail ballot drop-off locations (West's Ann. Cal. Elect. Code § 3025). See 2 CCR § 20130 et seq. for details.
  • Colorado: One drop box is required for every 30,000 active registered voters in the county. The drop boxes must be arrayed throughout the county in a manner that provides the greatest convenience to electors (C.R.S.A. § 1-7.5-107). Rules from the secretary of state set minimum security requirements for stand-alone drop boxes (8 CCR 1505-1:7.5).
  • Montana: If a county chooses to conduct an all-mail ballot election, the election administrator’s office must be a place of deposit where ballots can be returned, and the election administrator may designate one or more other locations for drop off (Mont. Code Ann. 13-19-307).
  • New Mexico: Mail ballot envelopes may be returned by depositing the official mailing envelope in a secured container. These containers must have signage and be monitored by video surveillance (N. M. S. A. 1978, § 1-6-9).
  • Oregon: At a minimum, official ballot drop sites must be open on Election Day for eight or more hours and must be open until at least 8 p.m. (O.R.S. § 254.470). Each county must have a minimum of two drop sites and at least one drop site for every 30,000 active registered voters in the county, including one within four miles of the main campus of each public university or community college. A drop site can be opened on the first day ballots are mailed, but at a minimum must be open to the public beginning on the Friday preceding the election, during the normal business hours of each location. The following must be considered in placement of the ballot drop box within the drop site building: security, voter convenience, access for the physically disabled, parking, and public perception that drop site is official and secure (Vote by Mail Procedures Manual). Counties must also submit a drop site security plan with the secretary of state elections division (OAR 165-007-0310).
  • Washington: The county auditor must establish a minimum of one ballot drop box per 15,000 registered voters in the county and a minimum of one ballot drop box in each city, town, and census-designated place in the county with a post office, and must establish a ballot drop box on a tribal reservation if requested (West's RCWA 29A.40.0001).

Find more information on Table 9: State Laws Governing Ballot Drop Boxes.

Who can collect and drop off an absentee/mailed ballot on behalf of a voter?

Sometimes a voter may be unable to return the ballot in person or get it to a postal facility in time for it to be counted. In these cases, the voter may entrust the voted ballot to someone else—an agent or designee—to return the ballot.

  • Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., permit an absentee ballot to be returned by a designated agent: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.
    • A “designated agent,” in this case, could include a family member, attorney, attendant care provider or anyone who has been designated by the voter. Often the designee must be indicated in writing by the voter.
    • Of these states, 12 limit the number of ballots an agent or designee may return: Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia.
  • Nine states permit an absentee ballot to be returned by the voter’s family member: Arizona, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina and Ohio.
  • One state specifies that an absentee ballot must be returned by the voter either in person or by mail: Alabama.
  • Thirteen states do not address whether an agent or family member may return an absentee ballot on behalf of a voter: Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Note that interpretations of what this means vary. In some states, this may mean absentee ballot collection is generally accepted, and in others it may mean that this practice is not permitted.

Other restrictions states put on the collection of absentee ballots include:

  • In Arizona, it is a felony to knowingly collect voted or unvoted absentee ballots from another person; the law has been struck down, and the Arizona attorney general is seeking an appeal.
  • In California, a person designated to return a vote-by-mail ballot shall not receive any form of compensation based on the number of ballots the person returns.
  • In North Carolina, it is a felony for any person to take possession of any voter’s absentee ballot for delivery or return, with an exception for a voter’s near relative or verifiable legal guardian.
  • In North Dakota, no person may receive compensation, including money, goods or services, for acting as an agent for an elector.
  • Texas prohibits the collection and storage of carrier envelopes for absentee ballots at another location for subsequent delivery to the early voting clerk.
  • Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota and South Carolina all specify that a candidate for office or an individual working for a candidate may not serve as a designated agent.

Find more comprehensive information on Table 10: Who Can Collect and Return an Absentee Mail Ballot Other Than the Voter.

What are the deadlines for absentee ballots to be received by election officials?

The most common state deadline for election officials to receive absentee/mailed ballots is on Election Day when the polls close. Some states accept ballots received after Election Day if they were postmarked before the election. See Table 11: Receipt and Postmark Deadlines for Absentee Ballots for details.

An additional six states accept ballots from military or overseas voters if the envelope is postmarked prior to the deadline:

  • Arkansas: For qualified electors outside of the U.S., ballot envelopes must be postmarked by Election Day and received by 5 p.m., 10 days after the election (Ark. Code Ann. 7-5-411).
  • Indiana: Ballot envelopes sent by overseas voters must be postmarked by Election Day and received by noon 10 days after the election (IC 3-12-1-17).
  • Florida: A vote-by-mail ballot from an overseas voter in any presidential preference primary or general election must be postmarked on or before the election and received within 10 days of the election (Flor. Stat. Ann. 101.6952(5)). 
  • Missouri: A ballot from a military-overseas voter is counted if it is received by noon on the Friday after Election Day. If the voter has declared under penalty of perjury that the ballot was timely submitted, the ballot shall not be rejected on the basis that it has a late postmark, an unreadable postmark, or no postmark (V.A.M.S. 115.920).
  • Pennsylvania: For military and overseas voters, envelopes must be postmarked by the day before the election and received by 5 p.m. seven days after the election (25 P.S. 3146.8).
  • South Carolina: A military or overseas voter must attest under penalty of perjury that the ballot was timely submitted, and the ballot is counted if it is received the day before the county canvass. A ballot may not be rejected on the basis that it has a late postmark, an unreadable postmark, or no postmark (S.C. Code 7-15-700).

Which states have systems for voters to track their absentee ballots?

The 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE) required states to develop a free access system by which military and overseas voters could determine whether their ballot had reached the election official and if the ballot had been counted. The MOVE Act also gave military and overseas voters additional options for returning ballots. See NCSL’s Electronic Ballot Transmission page for additional information.

The MOVE Act didn’t necessarily mandate an online tracking system; a phone system would meet the requirement as well. But many states have developed online portals in the last several years. Increasingly, these have been opened up to all absentee/mailed ballot voters to track when their ballot has been sent out by election officials and then when the election official receives the marked ballot back, and whether or not the ballot was counted.

Online system for tracking absentee ballots map

At least 19 states mandate such a system in statute or administrative rule:

  • California (Cal. Elect. Code § 3019.7)
  • Colorado (C.R.S.A. § 1-7.5-207)
  • Delaware (15 Del. Code § 5526)
  • Florida (F.S.A. § 101.62)
  • Iowa (I.C.A. § 53.17A)
  • Maryland (COMAR 33.11.06.03)
  • Michigan (M.C.L.A. 168.764c)
  • Minnesota (Minnesota Rules, part 8210.0500)
  • Missouri* (V.A.M.S. 115.924)
  • New Hampshire (N.H. Rev. Stat. § 657:26)
  • New Mexico (N. M. S. A. § 1-6-9)
  • North Carolina* (N.C.G.S.A. § 163A-1348)
  • North Dakota (NDCC, 16.1-07-28)
  • Oklahoma (26 Okl. St. Ann. § 14-149)
  • South Carolina (S.C. Code §7-15-720)
  • Texas* (V.T.C.A., Election Code § 101.108)
  • Utah (U.C.A. § 20A-3-304.1)
  • Virginia (VA Code Ann. § 24.2-711.1)
  • Wyoming* (WY Rules and Regulations 002.0005.3 § 12)

*For military and overseas voters only

Other states that maintain webpages for tracking absentee/mailed ballots, even if not required by statute, include: D.C., Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia  Wisconsin.

There are also options being used in some states that proactively notify voters that their ballot has cleared certain steps of the process. This may be in the form of a text message or an email informing the voter that the ballot has been mailed out, that it was delivered to the voter’s home by the U.S. Postal Service, that it was received by the election official, etc.

Which states pay for postage to return an absentee ballot?

In most cases, it is up to the voter to pay for postage to return a mail ballot envelope to the election official. Some see this as a barrier to returning a ballot, or as a type of poll tax. One solution to this is to have ballot drop boxes widely available (see the section on drop boxes above). In states that hold all-mail ballot elections, returning by drop box or in person is the most common return method. Another option is for election officials to pre-pay postage for voters to return their ballots. See below for states that provide postage for returning a mailed ballot.

It’s important to note that the U.S. Postal Service has a policy of prioritizing election mail, especially ballots, and will deliver a ballot envelope even if it does not have sufficient postage. Typically, though, the post office will bill the local election office for the price of postage. If the majority of voters don’t affix postage, this could be a significant expense for a local election office. 

For military and overseas voters, federal law specifies that ballots can be returned to election officials using a free postage-paid symbol when mailed from a U.S. Post Office, Military Postal Service Agency (APO/FPO) or U.S. Diplomatic Pouch Mail. However, if voters return the ballot through a foreign mail system or via common carrier (such as FedEx, DHL or UPS), they must pay the rate for that service themselves.

For non-military voters returning a mail ballot, the following 16 states have statutes requiring local election officials to provide return postage for mailed ballots. Note that this is typically a business-reply mailing, so that local officials only pay for return postage for the ballots that are actually returned via the U.S. Postal Service.

  • Arizona: “The county recorder or other officer in charge of elections shall mail the early ballot and the envelope for its return postage prepaid to the address provided by the requesting elector…” (A.R.S. § 16-542).
  • California: “(a) The elections official shall deliver all of the following to each qualified applicant: (2) All supplies necessary for the use and return of the ballot, including an identification envelope with prepaid postage for the return of the vote by mail ballot” (West's Ann. Cal. Elect. Code § 3010).
    • Note: This language was added by AB 216 in 2019. Counties bear the cost but since it is a state-mandated program they could claim reimbursement of those costs from the state general fund.
  • Delaware: “(c) Postage for all mailings made pursuant to this subsection shall be prepaid by the Department” (15 Del. Code § 5504) and Instructions for Absentee Voting.
  • Hawaii: “The mailed distribution and return of absentee ballots shall be at no cost to the voter. The State and counties shall share in the cost of all postage associated with the distribution and return of absentee” (HRS § 11-182).
  • Idaho: “(2) The clerk shall issue a ballot, by mail, to every registered voter in a mail ballot precinct and shall affix postage to the return envelope sufficient to return the ballot” (I.C. § 34-308).
    • Note: This applies to mail ballot precincts, which must be designated by the board of county commissioners and have no more than 140 registered electors at the last general election.
  • Iowa: “The absentee ballot and affidavit envelope shall be enclosed in or with an unsealed return envelope marked postage paid which bears the same serial number as the affidavit envelope” (I.C.A. § 53.8).
  • Kansas: “The county election officer shall provide for the payment of postage for the return of ballot envelopes” (K.S.A. 25-433).
  • Minnesota: “Ballot return envelopes, with return postage provided, must be preaddressed to the auditor or clerk and the voter may return the ballot by mail or in person to the office of the auditor or clerk…” (M.S.A. § 203B.07)
  • Missouri: “Mailing envelopes for use in returning ballots shall be printed with business reply permits so that any ballot returned by mail does not require postage. All fees and costs for establishing and maintaining the business reply and postage-free mail for all ballots cast shall be paid by the secretary of state through state appropriations” (V.A.M.S. 115.285).
  • Nevada: “3. The return envelope sent pursuant to subsection 1 must include postage prepaid by first-class mail if the absent voter is within the boundaries of the United States, its territories or possessions or on a military base” (Nev. Rev. Stat. 293.323).
  • New Mexico: “A. The secretary of state shall prescribe the form of, procure and distribute to each county clerk a supply of: (1) official inner envelopes for use in sealing the completed mailed ballot; (2) official mailing envelopes for use in returning the official inner envelope to the county clerk, which shall be postage -paid; provided that only the official mailing envelope for absentee ballots in a political party primary shall contain a designation of party affiliation…” (N. M. Stat. Ann. § 1-6-8).
  • Oregon: “(1) Except as provided in subsection (2) of this section, for each election held in this state, electors shall be provided with a return identification envelope that may be returned by business reply mail. The state shall bear the cost of complying with this subsection” (SB 861 in 2019).
  • Rhode Island: “(d)(1) Upon the ballots becoming available, the secretary of state shall immediately issue and mail, by first-class mail, postage prepaid, a mail ballot to each eligible voter who has been certified. With respect to voters who have applied for these mail ballots under the provisions of § 17-20-2(1), the secretary of state shall include with the mail ballots a stamped, return envelope addressed to the board of elections” (R.I. Gen. Laws § 17-20-10).
    • Note: According to this press release, postage is being covered by the secretary of state’s budget.
  • Washington: “(4)….Return envelopes for all election ballots must include prepaid postage” (West's RCWA 29A.40.091)
  • West Virginia: “(e)(1) Within one day after the official designated to supervise and conduct absentee voting has both the completed application and the ballot, the official shall mail to the voter at the address given on the application the following items as required and as prescribed by the Secretary of State: ….(C) One postage paid envelope, unsealed, designated “Absent Voter's Ballot Envelope No. 2…” (W. Va. Code, § 3-3-5).
  • Wisconsin: “(3)(a)…. If the ballot is mailed, and the ballot qualifies for mailing free of postage under federal free postage laws, the clerk shall affix the appropriate legend required by U.S. postal regulations. Otherwise, the clerk shall pay the postage required for return when the ballot is mailed from within the United States. If the ballot is not mailed by the absentee elector from within the United States, the absentee elector shall provide return postage” (W.S.A. 6.87).
  • Note: New Jersey leaves it up to the discretion of county clerks to provide a postage paid envelope (N.J.S.A. 19:63-12).

Find more details on Table 12: States With Postage-Paid Election Mail.

Processing, Verifying and Counting Absentee Ballots

The time frame of vote counting shifts with an increase in absentee/mailed ballots. Much of the work involved with verifying the identity of a voter can be done ahead of time, and some processing of ballots can occur before the election so that ballots are ready to be counted at the time permitted by statute. Counting typically continues in the days after Election Day as well, so verifying voters and counting ballots occurs during a longer period of time than just one day (Election Day).

In this section you will find:

How do officials verify voted absentee ballots?

Unlike the traditional experience of voting at a physical polling place under the supervision of election officials or volunteer election workers, marking an absentee/mailed ballot occurs in an unsupervised environment, usually at the voter’s home. The ballot is then sent through the mail or delivered in person to the election office. Because the voter does not appear in person, election officials use other ways of verifying that the absentee/mailed ballot they are receiving comes from the intended eligible voter.

The most common method to verify that absentee/mailed ballots are coming from the intended voter is to conduct signature verification. When voters return an absentee/mailed ballot, they must sign an affidavit on the ballot envelope. When the ballot is returned to the election office, election officials have a process for examining each and every signature and comparing it to other documents in their files that contain the voter signature—usually the voter registration record. See Colorado’s Signature Verification Guide for one example of state guidance on how to conduct this verification step.

This process of comparing and matching signatures is done by election officials or temporary election workers, sometimes assisted by technology, and often working in bipartisan teams during this review process. In some states, especially those that send mail ballots to all eligible voters, the individuals verifying signatures undergo training to analyze signatures for potential fraud.

If a discrepancy is found, there may be an opportunity for the voter to come into the election office and “cure” the discrepancy. The election official will contact the voter explaining the problem and asking them to verify their information and that that they did in fact cast the ballot. There is usually a period of time after the election available for voters to take this verification step, but if the voter doesn’t do this then the ballot isn’t counted.

Some states have other methods for verifying absentee/mailed ballots. They may require absentee/by mail voters to include photocopies of their identification documents or have the absentee/mailed ballot envelope signed by witnesses or notarized.

State methods for verifying absentee/mailed ballots:

  • Thirty-one states conduct signature verification, comparing the signature on the absentee/mailed ballot envelope with a signature already on file for the voter:
    • Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington and West Virginia.
  • Six states and D.C. verify that an absentee/mailed ballot envelope has been signed but do not conduct signature verification:
    • Connecticut, District of Columbia, Iowa, Maryland, New Mexico, Vermont and Wyoming.
  • Eight states require the signature of a witness in addition to the voter’s signature. These states may conduct signature verification as well.
    • Alaska (witness or a notary), Louisiana*, Minnesota (witness or notary), North Carolina (two witnesses or a notary), Rhode Island* (two witnesses or a notary), South Carolina*, Virginia and Wisconsin.
  • Three states require the absentee/mailed ballot envelope to be notarized: Mississippi, Missouri and Oklahoma.
  • Arkansas requires a copy of the voter’s ID be returned with the absentee/mailed ballot.
  • Alabama requires both a copy of the voter’s ID and signatures from a notary or two witnesses with the absentee/mailed ballot return.

*Military and overseas voters are exempt from this requirement.

For full 50-state details on how absentee/mailed ballots are verified in states, please visit Table 14: How States Verify Voted Absentee Ballots.

What happens if there is a missing signature or a signature discrepancy?

It is not uncommon for an absentee/mailed ballot to be returned in an envelope that has a problem, such as a missing signature or a signature that doesn’t match.

Some states have a process in statute for voters to “cure” these mistakes in time for the ballot to be counted. These states notify voters that there was a problem—either the ballot envelope was not signed or the signature does not appear to match the one on file—and then provide the voters with a process and time frame to verify that the ballot is indeed theirs. In states that do not have such a process, ballots with missing or mismatched signatures on the envelope are not counted.

Nineteen states require that voters are to be notified when there is a missing signature or signature discrepancy—and given an opportunity to correct it. Details are provided in the table below. Visit Table 15: States That Permit Voters to Correct Signature Discrepancies for more details.

In other states no statutory requirement exists to give voters the opportunity to correct a missing signature or a signature discrepancy. If a signature is missing or does not appear to match the one on file, the ballot is not counted. In some cases, voters may be informed after the election that their ballot was rejected, but they do not have the opportunity to correct it for it to be counted.

  • Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming.

Statutes Permitting Voters to Correct Signature Discrepancies

State Notification Process Correction Process

Arizona

Ariz. Rev. Stat. §16-550

Election officials shall make reasonable efforts to contact the voter, advise the voter of the inconsistent signature and allow the voter to correct or the county to confirm the inconsistent signature.

Voters have until the fifth business day after an election to correct a signature.

California

CA Elect Code

§ 3019

Voters of ballots with mismatching signatures are notified a minimum of eight days prior to certification of the election.

Voters have until 5 p.m. two days prior to certification of the election to provide a signature verification statement in person. If a voter fails to sign the absentee ballot envelope, they have until 5 p.m. on the eighth day after the election to submit a signature verification statement.

Colorado

Colo. Rev. Stat. §1-7.5-107.3

Voters of ballots with missing/mismatching signatures are notified by mail within three days (or within two days after the election) of any discrepancy.

A confirmation form accompanying the letter must be returned to the county clerk and recorder within eight days after Election Day to count.

Florida

Flor. Stat. § 101.68

County election supervisors shall notify any voter whose signature is missing or doesn’t match records.

Voters may cure ballots until 5 p.m. on the second day after the election.

Georgia

Georgia Code § 21-2-386

If ballot is rejected, voter is promptly notified of rejection.

If before Election Day, a voter may reapply for an absentee ballot or vote provisionally at their local polling place.

Hawaii

Haw. Rev. Stat.

§ 11-106

Local election officials shall make an attempt to notify the voter by first class mail, telephone or electronic mail to inform the voter of the procedure to correct the deficiency.

The voter shall have five business days after the date of the election to cure the deficiency.

Illinois

10 ILCS 5/19-8

Voters are notified by mail of rejected ballot within two days of rejection.

Voters have until 14 days after election to resolve issue with county election authority.

Iowa
Iowa Code § 53.18(2)

If a ballot affidavit is incomplete or absent, the commissioner must notify the voter within 24 hours.

A voter may vote a replacement ballot until the day before the election or vote at the voter’s precinct polling place.

Massachusetts

Mass. Gen. Laws ch 54 § 94)

Prior to Election Day, the voter is notified and, if sufficient time allows, sent a new ballot if an affidavit signature is absent or the ballot is rejected for other reasons.

Voter can submit a new absentee ballot.

Michigan

Mich. Comp. Laws

§ 168.765b

If a ballot affidavit is found in error, the voter is contacted and provided

opportunity to visit the clerk's office or request a replacement ballot should time allow.

Voter can request a replacement absentee ballot.

Minnesota 

Minn. Stat.

§ 203B.121

If a ballot is rejected more than five days before Election Day a replacement ballot is mailed; if rejected within five days, election officials must contact the voter via telephone or email to provide options for voting a replacement ballot.

Voter can request a replacement absentee ballot.

Montana

Mont. Code

§ 13-13-241

§ 13-13-245

Election administrators shall notify voters of missing or mismatched signatures.

Voters have until 8 p.m. on Election Day to cure their ballot.

Nevada

Nev. Rev. Stat. 293.325

Local election officials shall notify voters of missing or mismatched signatures.

Voters have until the seventh day after the election to resolve the issue.

Ohio

Ohio Rev Code § 3509.06

Notice is mailed to voters whose ballots were rejected.

Voters have until the seventh day after the election to resolve issue.

Oregon

Ore. Rev. Stat.

§ 254.431

County clerks notify voters by mail of any signature absence or discrepancy.

Voters must complete and return the certified statement accompanying the notice by the 14th day after the election for their ballot to count.

Rhode Island

RI Gen L § 17-2-26

Local board of canvassers is responsible for notifying voters by mail, email or phone.

Voters have until seven days after Election Day to correct a deficiency.

Utah

Utah Code Ann.

§ 20A-3-308(7)

Election officials notify voters of ballot rejection in one to two business days if rejected before Election Day; seven days if rejected on Election Day; and seven days if rejected between Election Day and the end of official canvas.

Voters must sign a new affidavit statement provided by the clerk’s office and return by 5 p.m. the day before the official canvass (7-14 days after Election Day).

Washington

Wash. Admin. Code 434-261-050

Voters notified by mail of rejected ballots due to missing/mismatching signature statements.

Voter must sign and return a curing statement before election certification (21 days after Election Day). Three days before certification, county auditors must attempt to contact by phone any voters with outstanding ballots to be cured.

Wisconsin

Wis. Stat. § 6.87(9)

Municipal clerks return any deficient absentee ballot envelopes with a new envelope to the voter.

A voter may provide a corrected signature envelope until close of polls Election Day.

When can election officials begin to process and count absentee ballots?

In many states, processing of absentee/mailed ballots can begin before they are actually counted. “Processing” means different things in different states, but typically the first step is comparing the affidavit signature on the outside of the return envelope against the voter’s signature on record to ensure a match. See the section above on verifying signatures for additional details on this process.

In some states, once the signature is verified the envelope can then be opened and the ballot prepared for tabulation. In essence, states that begin processing before Election Day can “tee up” absentee/mailed ballots so that they are ready to be counted as soon as the law allows. This permits election officials to do a lot of the work ahead of time to speed up the counting and reporting process on Election Day: confirming the affidavit signature; removing the ballot from the secrecy envelope; flattening and stacking the ballots—even potentially running them through the scanner, but not hitting the “tally” button to actually obtain results. Most states require confidentiality of results if they are known ahead of time or require election officials to process only to a certain point ahead of time. Ask your state election officials for details on their practice.

Visit Table 16: When Absentee/Mail Ballot Processing and Counting Can Begin for more information. In summary:

  • Thirty-two states permit election officials to begin processing absentee/mailed ballot envelopes prior to the election. This looks a little different in each state, but the first step is to verify signatures on the absentee ballot and the timeframes listed below are when election officials can begin this process in each state. In some states listed below additional processing, such as removing the ballots from envelopes and readying them for counting, may also be permitted prior to Election Day.
    • Alaska: seven days before the election.
    • Arizona: upon receipt of returned absentee/mailed ballot.
    • Arkansas: seven days before the election.
    • California: 29 days before, 10 days before, or the day before the election depending on whether a jurisdiction is all-mail and has the necessary computer capability.
    • Colorado: upon receipt of returned absentee/mailed ballot.
    • Delaware: Friday before the election.
    • Florida: 22 days before the election.
    • Georgia: upon receipt of returned absentee/mailed ballot.
    • Hawaii: upon receipt of returned absentee/mailed ballot.
    • Idaho: upon receipt of returned absentee/mailed ballot.
    • Illinois: upon receipt of returned absentee/mailed ballot.
    • Iowa: day before the election.
    • Kansas: before Election Day; exact timing not specified.
    • Louisiana: before Election Day; exact timing not specified.
    • Minnesota: upon receipt of returned absentee/mailed ballot.
    • Missouri: five days before the election.
    • Montana: upon receipt of returned absentee/mailed ballot.
    • Nebraska: second Monday before the election.
    • Nevada: upon receipt of returned absentee/mailed ballot.
    • New Jersey: upon receipt of returned absentee/mailed ballot.
    • New Mexico: any time after mailed ballots have been sent until the fifth day before the election.
    • North Carolina: two weeks before the election.
    • North Dakota: day before the election.
    • Ohio: before Election Day; exact timing not specified.
    • Oklahoma: before Election Day; exact timing not specified.
    • Oregon: upon receipt of returned absentee/mailed ballot.
    • Rhode Island: 14 days before the election.
    • Tennessee: upon receipt of returned absentee/mailed ballot.
    • Texas: upon receipt of returned absentee/mailed ballot.
    • Utah: before Election Day; exact timing not specified.
    • Vermont: day before the election.
    • Virginia: before Election Day; exact timing not specified.
    • Washington: upon receipt of returned absentee/mailed ballot.
  • Eleven states and D.C. permit election officials to begin processing absentee/mailed ballots on Election Day, but prior to the closing of the polls:
    • Alabama: noon on Election Day.
    • Connecticut: on Election Day at the discretion of local registrar of voters.
    • District of Columbia: Signatures are verified and the secrecy envelope removed prior to tabulation, but exact timing is not specified.
    • Kentucky: 8 a.m. on Election Day.
    • Maine: before the polls close if notice of processing times is posted at least seven days before the election.
    • Michigan: on Election Day before the polls close at the jurisdiction’s discretion.
    • New Hampshire: 1 p.m. on Election Day, or no earlier than two hours after the opening of the polls if posted and announced ahead of time.
    • New York: on Election Day; exact time not specified.
    • South Carolina: 9 a.m. on Election Day.
    • South Dakota: Processing occurs at precinct polling places on Election Day if the election board is not otherwise involved in official duties.
    • West Virginia: on Election Day; exact time not specified.
    • Wisconsin: on Election Day after the polls open.
    • Wyoming: processing occurs at precinct polling places on Election Day as time permits
  • Four states do not permit the processing of absentee/mailed ballots until after the polls close on Election Day:
    • Massachusetts: after the polls close.
    • Mississippi: after the polls close.
    • Pennsylvania: after the polls close.
    • Maryland: processing and counting of absentee/mailed ballots occurs after the election

In most states that begin processing absentee/mailed ballots prior to Election Day there is a requirement that the act of totaling votes and reporting contest results cannot begin until after the polls close. There may be procedures and functional aspects of voting equipment that allow ballots to be “counted” without obtaining a final tally or result. For example:

  • In Colorado election officials at the mail ballot counting place may receive and prepare mail ballots delivered and turned over to them by the designated election official for tabulation. Counting of the mail ballots may begin fifteen days prior to the election and continue until counting is completed. The election official in charge of the mail ballot counting place shall take all precautions necessary to ensure the secrecy of the counting procedures, and no information concerning the count shall be released by the election officials or watchers until after 7 p.m. on Election Day (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 1-7.5-107.5).
  • In Delaware tallies may begin on the Friday before the election but results of absentee ballots shall not be extracted or reported until polls close on Election Day (15 Del. C. § 5510).
  • In New Mexico absentee ballots are inserted into vote counting machines to be registered and retained before Election Day, but all votes are counted and canvassed following the closing of the polls. It is unlawful for a person to disclose the results of a count or tally prior to the closing of the polls or the deadline for receiving mailed ballots (N. M. S. A. § 1-6-14).
  • In Ohio processing may begin before the time for counting ballots. Processing means examining the envelope, opening valid envelopes, preparing and sorting the ballot and scanning the ballot using automatic tabulating equipment if the equipment used permits an absentee voter’s ballot to be scanned without tabulating or counting the votes on the ballots scanned. The count or any portion of the count of absentee voter’s ballots may not be disclosed prior to the closing of the polls (Ohio Rev. Code § 3509.06).
  • In Virginia ballots may be inserted into ballot counting machines prior to the closing of the polls, but no ballot count totals by the machines shall be initiated prior to the closing of the polls. If absentee ballots are counted by hand, tallying may begin after time after 3:00 pm. the day of the election. No counts of such tallies shall be determined or transmitted until after the closing of the polls (VA Code Ann. § 24.2-709.1).

How are absentee ballot results reported?

States differ on how and when results of absentee/mailed ballots are reported. Most states report these ballots at the precinct level so that it’s possible to see voter turnout by precinct regardless of how the ballot was voted (in person or by absentee/mailed ballot). Since absentee/mailed ballots are accepted up to and including Election Day in most cases, it can take until days after an election before all ballots are counted.

In many states, especially those that handle large volumes of absentee/mailed ballots, counting is done at a central location. The most common way to report absentee/mailed ballot results is to add the tabulated votes from absentee ballots to the total tabulated at each precinct and report precinct results with both the absentee and Election Day votes included.

Some states handle this process differently, though. Some states send absentee ballots to precinct polling places on Election Day to be counted by the precinct-level scanners/tabulators. Others establish separate “absentee ballot precincts” that combine all mailed ballots from throughout the jurisdiction into one reporting unit, regardless of what precinct the voter is in. That approach loses the precinct-level data that is useful to candidates for campaigning and to election officials to allocate resources.

Visit Table 17: How Election Results Are Reported for comprehensive information. Some examples:

  • In Alabama, absentee ballots are delivered to precinct polling places where they are counted and otherwise handled as if the voter were present and voting in person (Code of Ala. §17-11-10).
  • In Iowa, each county establishes a special “absentee ballot and special voters precinct.” Results from the special precinct are reported separately. For general elections, results are also reported by the resident precinct of voters. For all other elections absentee results may be reported as a single precinct (Iowa Code §53.23).
  • In Minnesota, for state primary and general elections, absentee vote totals are added to the returns for the appropriate precinct. For other elections, vote totals may be added to the precinct or reported as a separate total (Minn. Stat. Ann. §203B.121).
  • In Nevada, the returns of absentee ballots must be reported separately from the regular votes of the precinct, unless reporting the returns separately would violate the secrecy of a voter's ballot (Nev. Stat. §293.385).
  • In South Carolina, an absentee voting precinct is established in each county to tabulate and report absentee ballots (S.C. Code § 7-15-420).
  • In South Dakota, each county establishes an absentee ballot precinct and absentee ballots are counted in that precinct, unless a precinct has 10 or fewer absentee ballots cast at the time the polls open on Election Day in which case absentee ballots in that precinct are counted at the polling place. Tally sheets include a space for results by precinct (SDCL § 12-19-37, ARSD 5:02:14:04).
  • In Virginia, counties may establish one or more absentee voter precincts (VA Code Ann. § 24.2-712).
  • In West Virginia, absentee ballots are delivered to polling places to be counted (W. Va. Code, § 3-3-8).
  • In Wyoming, absentee ballots are delivered to polling places for counting unless the county adopts an alternate procedure to count them centrally. The number of electors voting in person and by absentee ballot by precinct at the election is reported (Wyo. Stat. § 22-16-103).

All-Mail Elections (aka Vote-by-Mail or Vote-at-Home Elections)

What are all-mail ballot elections?

Five states currently conduct all elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Three states--California, Nebraska and North Dakota allow counties to determine if an election will be held entirely by mail, with many but not all counties choosing to do so. At least17 states have provisions allowing certain elections to be conducted entirely by mail. For these elections, all registered voters are sent 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. Find more details on Table 18: States With All-Mail Elections.

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.” 

While “all-mail elections” means that every registered voter receives a ballot by mail, this does not preclude in-person voting opportunities on and/or before Election Day. For example, despite the fact that all registered voters in Colorado are mailed a ballot, voters can choose to cast a ballot at an in-person vote center during the early voting period or on Election Day (or drop off or mail their ballot back).

Five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington—send mailed ballots to all eligible voters. In California, some counties are currently permitted to conduct all-mail elections, and in 2020 more than 50% of the state’s voting population live in counties that will do so. After 2020, the option will be available to all counties in the state. Utah permits individual counties to determine if they would like to conduct all-mail elections and all counties are expected to do so in 2020.

Other states permit all-mail elections in certain circumstances, such as for special elections, municipal elections, when there is a smaller voting population in a given district, 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. 

Which states have statutory provisions for all-mail ballot elections?

  • States that conduct all elections by mail:
    • Colorado (enacted by HB 1303 in 2013; first implemented statewide in 2014; CRS §1-5-401).
    • Hawaii (enacted by HB 1248 in 2019; first implemented statewide in 2020; Hawaii Stat. §11-101).
    • Oregon (enacted by citizens’ initiative in 1998; first implemented statewide in 2000; ORS §254.465).
    • Utah: (HB 172 in 2012 permitted jurisdictions to choose to conduct elections entirely by mail; first implemented by all jurisdictions in the state in 2019; Utah Code Ann. §20A-3a-302).
    • Washington (enacted by HB 5124 in 2011; first implemented statewide in 2012; Rev. Code of Wash. 29A.40.010).

Adoption of All-Mail Ballot Elections

State Year Enacted Bill # Year Implemented Citation

Colorado

2013

HB1303

2014

CRS §1-5-401

Hawaii

2019

HB 1248

2020

Hawaii Stat. §11-101

Oregon

1998

Citizen’s initiative 

2000

ORS §254.465

Utah

2012 (permitted counties)

HB 172

2019 (first year all counties used it)

Utah Code Ann. §20A-3a-302

Washington

2011

HB 5124

2012

Rev. Code of Wash. 29A.40.010

  • States that permit counties to opt into conducting all elections by mail:
    • California: After/on Jan. 1, 2018, 14 counties may conduct all-mail elections. After Jan. 1, 2020, any county may conduct any election as an all-mail election following statutory guidelines (Cal. Elect. Cde §§4005-4008). When there are 250 or fewer voters registered to vote in a precinct (Cal. Elect. Code §3005); local, special or consolidated elections that meet certain criteria (Cal. Elect. Code §4000). See information from the California secretary of state on the Voter’s Choice Act for a list of counties that have currently opted for this option.
    • Nebraska: Any county of less than 10,000 inhabitants may apply to the secretary of state to mail ballots for all elections in lieu of establishing polling places (Neb. Rev. Stat. §32-960). Special ballot measure elections that meet certain criteria, held by a political subdivision (Neb. Rev. Stat. §32-952).
    • North Dakota: Counties may conduct any election by mail. Applications for mailed ballots are sent to each individual listed on the central voter file (note that North Dakota does not require voter registration ahead of the election) and there must be one or more polling places in the county for voting in the usual manner (ND Cent. Code §16.1-11.1-01 et seq.).
  • States that permit some elections to be conducted by mail:
    • Alaska: Elections that are not held on the same day as a general, party primary or municipal election (Alaska Stat.§15.20.800).
    • Arizona: A city, town, school district or special district may conduct elections by mail (Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. §16-409, §16-558).
    • Florida: Referendum elections at the county, city, school district or special district level (Fla. Stat. §101.6102).
    • Kansas: Nonpartisan elections at which no candidate is elected, retained or recalled and which is not held on the same date as another election (Kan. Stat. Ann. §25-432).
    • Maryland: Special elections not held concurrently with a regularly scheduled primary or general election (Md. Election Code §9-501).
    • 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.).
    • New Mexico: Special elections, except those to fill a vacancy in the office of U.S. Representative, shall be conducted by mail (N.M. Stat. §1-24-3).
    • Wyoming: Counties may decide to conduct special elections not held in conjunction with a primary, general or statewide special election entirely by mail (Wyo. Stat. 22-29-115)

In addition to the all-mail elections mentioned above, five states permit certain jurisdictions (or portions of a jurisdiction) to be designated as all-mail based on population: 

  • Idaho: A precinct which contains no more than 140 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).
  • 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.45).
  • Nevada: Whenever there were not more than 20 voters registered in a precinct for the last preceding general election (Nev. Rev. Stat. §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: A county may designate a precinct as a mail ballot election precinct if it has fewer than 100 voters and the nearest polling place for an adjoining precinct is more than 20 miles driving distance from the precinct boundary in question (N. M. Stat. Ann. § 1-6-22.1).

Security Features of Voting by Absentee/Mailed Ballots

As the trend toward states permitting or even encouraging more people to vote from home (by absentee/mailed ballots, or going to all-mailed elections) has accelerated, a key question from legislators has been, how secure can we make our system?

In several ways, absentee/mailed ballots are as secure or more secure than traditional methods of voting:

  • Absentee/mailed ballots are hand-marked paper ballots. Paper ballots that have been hand-marked by voters are considered by most to be the gold standard of election security. Absentee/mailed ballots provide a paper trail that can be examined if there is any suspicion of meddling, and the marks of voters can be examined one by one if need be. Paper ballots allow for post-election audits and cutting edge election security methods such as risk-limiting audits (RLA), which more states are adopting. An RLA compares a random sample of ballots against the vote tally to ensure the outcome of the election is correct. It requires a robust ballot accounting process to ensure a trustworthy paper trail.
  • The identity of every absentee/mailed ballot voter can be verified through signature verification. In a sense, a signature is a form of biometric identification, i.e. it is unique to a particular voter. By having a voter sign an affidavit on an absentee/ballot envelope the voter is affirming that the ballot enclosed is their ballot. Election officials can verify the signature as well. When combined with an effective “cure process,” or opportunity for a voter to fix a mismatched or missing signature, signature verification is an effective way to verify a voter’s identity. See above for more details on how signature verification works.
  • In most states, absentee/mailed ballots are examined and processed in advance of Election Day, spreading out the workload and providing more time for scrutiny and to “get it right.” If there is a cybersecurity incident that affects the election, there are longer lines at polling locations than anticipated, voting machines break down, election workers don’t show up, etc., voters may find it difficult to cast their votes.  

Even though voting is not occurring in a supervised environment, a number of features can be prescribed to enhance security of the election when voting by absentee/mailed ballot.

  • Systems that allow a state to keep address information up-to-date for voters is the first step in ensuring the security of absentee/mailed ballots. If voters can easily keep their addresses up-to-date then their absentee/mailed ballot is more likely to get to them. Policies to make registration updates convenient for voters and to ensure robust voter list maintenance procedures can help keep voter information current. The act of sending out absentee/mailed ballots also allows election officials to ensure they have up-to-date addresses for voters, and states that send out more absentee/mailed ballots have seen an added benefit of “cleaner” voter lists, i.e. voter address information is kept up to date.
  • Bipartisan teams have long provided a measure of security. Teams of election workers from different political parties can be deployed to retrieve ballots from the U.S. Postal Service or from drop boxes; verify signatures; open envelopes and separate the ballot from the envelope; prepare the ballots for scanning; and participate in the vote counting process.
  • Established “chain of custody” procedures that account for all steps in the process of moving and processing ballots are useful. This is true for every aspect of election administration, but particularly true for ballots that are submitted throughout an election period and not just on Election Day.
  • Because voted mailed ballots are stored for some length of time before the election is complete, physical security is essential, too. Security cameras, locks that need a bipartisan team to open, and logs of all activities relating to ballot handling can be part of this effort. See NCSL’s Elections Security webpage for more.
  • Ballot tracking can help. Ballot tracking provides voters an opportunity to track their ballots through the process, just as packages can be tracked through FedEx or other carriers. In the case of Denver elections, texts can be sent to voters who sign up for the service so they know when their ballot has been mailed to them, when it has been received back at the election office, and when it has been approved for tallying. In other jurisdictions, voters can electronically query their local election office to ensure that a ballot is on the way. Voters can then ask for another ballot to be sent (and the first one is canceled by the election official to ensure the voter does not vote twice) if there is reason to believe a ballot has been lost.
  • Security mechanisms to prevent double-voting can be required. For instance, ballot envelopes are barcoded for individual voters, allowing election officials to be sure that they are only accepting one ballot per voter.
  • Ballot collection laws that specify how many voted ballots can be collected by any individual are intended to reduce fraud. This can also be mitigated by providing voters with ample opportunities to return their own ballots. And laws requiring signature verification rather than a witness or a notary signature can also reduce opportunities for coercion.
  • Ensuring that there are meaningful penalties for tampering with or otherwise hindering the delivery of absentee/mailed ballots, and that voters are sufficiently informed of these penalties, is another way to enhance security.

Policy Decision Points

For legislators who are considering changes to their states’ election models, they’re probably looking for options that may increase turnout, lower costs, and be even more secure as the present system. They’re likely to also want to understand the perspective of their state’s election officials, and the role of state control vis a vis local control. These are likely to be the top-level considerations, regardless of the nature of a proposed change.

Regarding potential shifts to more absentee/mailed ballot/outside-a-polling place voting, legislators will first want to know where their state is currently. There is a continuum of states, some that require an excuse for voters to vote absentee all the way to states that send ballots to all voters. States generally move one step at a time. 

For legislators who want to consider increasing the share of their state’s votes that are likely to be cast as absentee/mailed ballots, here is a short list of considerations, all of which are addressed elsewhere in this webpage. States can:

  • Remove requirements for an affidavit or witness signature on absentee ballot requests, and instead beef up signature verification.
  • Create a permanent (or single-sign-on) absentee list so voters who prefer to receive ballots for all elections through the mail can easily do so.
  • Permit or require a state-level online portal through which a voter can request a ballot.
  • Consider whether guidance for third-party groups that are interested in distributing applications for absentee/mailed ballots would be useful to ensure that they are handled in a timely manner.
  • Decide if ballots must be received by the close of polls on Election Day, or if they will be counted even if they arrive after. Late-arriving ballots can slow down election results reporting.
  • Permit ballots to be processed—but not counted—prior to Election Day. By doing so, counting is faster, and results can be released faster as well. The more absentee/mailed ballots there are, the more crucial this factor becomes.
  • Provide a notification process for voters if there is something wrong with their ballot envelope, and give them a chance to correct, or “cure,” the ballot before the election is certified. Otherwise, the number of uncounted ballots will be higher for absentee/mailed ballots than for in-person ballots. The cure process can extend a few days after Election Day so voters who submit a ballot at the last minute with a signature issue can ensure their vote is counted.
  • Require that results of all ballots—those voted in a polling place as well as those voted at home—are reported at the precinct level, because elected officials benefit from knowing the where their support is coming from and where they may need to beef up their constituent connections.
  • Provide a variety of options for voters to return ballots and sufficient in-person locations for voters who need assistance or would prefer to vote in-person. Options for returning ballots can include these in-person locations as well as secure drop boxes throughout a jurisdiction. Having some or all of the drop boxes available around the clock (with security cameras) is useful.
  • Decide whether to provide prepaid return postage, as a couple of states have done. Note that providing secure drop boxes throughout the jurisdiction reduces the number of voted ballots that are mailed, and thus reduces the cost of providing prepaid envelopes.
  • Ensure that there are sufficient opportunities for voters to update their address and robust voter list maintenance procedures. See NCSL’s webpage on Voter List Accuracy for additional information.
  • Require reporting for every election the number of mailed-out ballots requested, the number sent out and the number returned. This will allow policymakers to track the popularity of this voting method over time and to allocate resources appropriately.

Please feel free to contact NCSL’s elections team for any level of assistance or data that may prove helpful.

Tables

Table 1: States with No-Excuse Absentee Voting

Table 2: Excuses to Vote Absentee

Table 3: States with Permanent Absentee Voting for All Voters, Voters with Permanent Disabilities, and/or Senior Voters

Table 4: State Laws on Removing Voters From Permanent Absentee Lists

Table 5: Applying for an Absentee Ballot, Including Third Party Registration Drives

Table 6: States with Web-Based Absentee Ballot Applications

Table 7: When States Mail Out Absentee Ballots

Table 8: How States Verify Absentee Ballot Applications

Table 9: State Laws Governing Ballot Drop Boxes

Table 10: Who Can Collect and Return an Absentee Ballot Other Than the Voter

Table 11: Receipt and Postmark Deadlines for Absentee Ballots

Table 12: States with Postage Paid Election Mail

Table 13: States that are Required to Provide Secrecy Sleeves for Absentee/Mail Ballots

Table 14: How States Verify Voted Absentee Ballots

Table 15: States that Permit Voters to Correct Signature Discrepancies

Table 16: When Absentee/Mail Ballot Processing and Counting Can Begin 

Table 17: How Election Results are Reported

Table 18: All-Mail Election States 

Resources

NCSL acknowledges and thanks Vote at Home (VAH) for its support for this project.