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

7/12/2022

voting at home

Our organization does not run elections and cannot provide legal advice. If you are a voter looking for assistance, please contact your local election official. You can find your local election official's website and contact information by using this database from the US Vote Foundation.

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 webinar series on this topic.

No-Excuse Absentee Voting: In 35 states and Washington, D.C., any qualified voter may vote an absentee/mail ballot without offering an excuse, and in the remaining 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 VotingOf the states that offer no-excuse absentee voting, eight automatically mail a ballot 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.

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 250 years. When the United States first came into being, voters would voice their choices on courthouse steps, out loud and publicly. Toward the end of the 19th century, a paper ballot became common and was increasingly cast in private at a neighborhood polling place. How we vote has continued to change throughout the decades. Most 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, but over a series of days and weeks before the official Election Day, as well.

For information on those states that provide an early, in-person voting period, see Early In-Person Voting.

All states allow voters who have an eligible excuse for not being able to 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 who prefer to vote in person or may need assistance). This report details each of these variations and how absentee/mail 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,” “mail-in ballots” or “vote-by- mail ballots.”

In this report NCSL uses “absentee/mail ballots” to reflect the traditional terminology and also the evolution of the term’s use. 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/mail 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 weigh 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. For example, this survey from Pew Research Center shows that 65% of voters support no-excuse absentee voting.
  • Financial savings. Jurisdictions may save money because more absentee/mail voting can reduce 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 several reforms Colorado enacted in 2013, with all-mail elections being the most significant. Others changes inclded 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, such as local elections, and for low propensity voters (those who are registered but do not regularly vote). Evidence for increased turnout based on absentee/mail 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 also be up-front costs for a jurisdiction to transition from mostly in-person to more absentee/mail voting, although overall fewer voting machines are required in jurisdictions that have more absentee/mail 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 fewer than the maximum number allowed, including marking nothing for one or more contests (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/mail ballot there is no similar mechanism to inform voters of errors on the ballot itself, so there tend to be more overvotes and undervotes. Damaged absentee/mail 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/mail ballot. Some, however, point out that the absentee/mail voting 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 because 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.)
  • The potential 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 results 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. While results are typically not official until a week or two after the election, extended counting can delay unofficial results, including the knowledge of who won or lost. During this time, all states are examining provisional ballots and ballots from military or overseas voters, as well. Allowing ballot processing before Election Day 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/mail 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, 15 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands only permit certain voters to request an absentee/mail ballot 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 on Table 2: Excuses to Vote Absentee. Note 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.

Thirty-five states and Washington, D.C., have “no-excuse absentee” voting, which means any voter can request an absentee/mail ballot without providing an excuse, and eight mail all voters a ballot.

In this section you will find:

Which States Do Not Require an Excuse To Vote Absentee or By Mail?

The following 35 states and Washington, D.C., offer "no-excuse" absentee/mail voting:

  • Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado*, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii*, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, 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.

*These states send mail 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 several excuses to vote absentee, including one that states, “No specific reason necessary.” Since any Rhode Islander can request an absentee/mail ballot, NCSL has categorized it as no excuse required.

For more details, visit Table 1: States with No-Excuse Absentee Voting.

What Are the Excuses To Vote Absentee in States That Require an Excuse?

All states permit voters who will be away from their home county to vote by absentee/mail 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 older voters.

Many states also permit voters to request an absentee/mail ballot in case of an emergency, 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, such as working during poll hours, serving as a poll worker or on a jury. These excuses are summarized in Table 2: Excuses to Vote Absentee.

Who Qualifies for Permanent Absentee Ballot Status?

Some states permit voters to join a permanent absentee/mail ballot voting list. Voters who request to be on this list will automatically receive an absentee/mail 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/mail 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/mail ballot for each election:

  • Arizona, District of Columbia, Maryland, Montana, New Jersey and Virginia.

Eleven states permit voters with permanent disabilities to use a “single sign-up” option. In some cases, a note from a physician or other indication of a permanent disability may be required. Once on the list, the state sends these voters absentee/mail ballots:

  • Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine (effective Nov. 1, 2023), Mississippi, New York, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Louisiana, Maine (effective Nov. 1, 2023) and Wisconsin also make this option available to senior voters.

An additional six states automatically send absentee/mail ballot 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/mail ballot:

  • Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania permit any voter to join a permanent list to receive absentee/mail ballot applications for each election. Voters on this list in Michigan and Minnesota receive applications before each election; voters in Pennsylvania receive applications at the beginning of the year and, upon submittal, the voter will receive an absentee/mail ballot for all elections that year.
  • Massachusetts and Missouri send permanently disabled voters absentee/mail ballot applications each election.
  • Alaska permits the election supervisor to designate a person as a permanent absentee voter and mail that voter an absentee/mail ballot application if the voter lives in a remote area, is a resident of a long-term care facility or is disabled.

In five states without permanent absentee lists, a voter’s absentee/mail ballot request lasts for more than one election.

  • In Florida, a request for an absentee/mail ballot remains in effect for all elections through the two-year election cycle (Fla. Stat. §101.62).
  • In Massachusetts (M.G.L.A. 54 § 25B), North Dakota (N.D. Cent. Code. §16.1-07-05(1)), Oklahoma (AC 230:30-5-13) and South Dakota (S.D. Codified Laws Ann. §12-19-2) a request for an absentee/mail ballot remains in effect through the calendar year.

Find more information on Table 3: States with Permanent Absentee Voting Lists.

How and When Is a Voter Removed From a Permanent Absentee Ballot List?

Once voters opt onto a permanent absentee/mail ballot list, they are automatically mailed a ballot for subsequent elections.

Voters on a permanent list can be removed for a variety of reasons, such as inactivity for a set number of election cycles, death, loss of voting rights, return of an absentee/mail ballot or other election mail as undeliverable or upon the voter’s request. Visit Table 4: State Laws on Removing Voters From Permanent Absentee Lists for more details. 

 

 

Requesting an Absentee Ballot

Most states, except for those that conduct all-mail elections, require voters to submit an application to obtain an absentee/mail 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 also regulate who can distribute or collect applications to receive an absentee/mail ballot.

Once the application is received, states have a process for verifying that the application did indeed come from the intended voter; only after verification are ballots mailed to that voter. The timelines for delivering blank ballots to voters vary, with some states beginning the process 45 days (or more) before an election, and others delivering blank ballots within a month before the election.

Note: This section does not apply to the eight states that send ballots to all eligible voters because an application is not required: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont (general elections only) and Washington.

In this section you will find:

How Can Voters Request an Absentee Ballot?

How voters may submit absentee/mail ballot applications varies by state. All states will permit a voter to submit an application by mail (usually via an official application form, which may be available online for download) or in person at a local election official’s office. Many states also allow applications by email (usually with a scanned application). In general, most states require the request to be in writing. Some states offer additional options, such as online portals or requests by phone, as well.

At least nineteen states have a statewide online portal that permits voters to request an absentee/mail ballot:

  • Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Some of these states used legislation to create this option and others did not. For more details, see Table 6: States with Online Absentee Ballot Application Portals.

At least six states also accept phone requests: Arizona, Florida, Maine, Mississippi, South Carolina and Wyoming.

Can Third-Party Individuals or Groups Distribute Absentee Ballot Applications and Collect Complete Applications?

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

Eighteen states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C., place no restrictions, or do not specify restrictions, on third- party groups distributing or collecting completed absentee/mail ballot applications:

  • Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Virgin Islands, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

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

  • Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota and New Mexico.

Seventeen states restrict or prohibit third-party individuals or groups from distributing or collecting absentee/mail ballot applications:

  • Alabama (no restriction on distribution), Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.

The remaining eight states conduct all-mail elections.

See Table 5: Applying for an Absentee Ballot, Including Third-Party Registration Drives for more details on each state’s absentee/mail ballot application distribution and collection laws.

What Are the Deadlines for Submitting an Absentee Ballot Application?

To have enough time to receive an absentee/mail 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/mail ballot applications closer to the election, but if a voter applies too 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.

The following deadlines are for submitting an application by mail; a few states have deadlines nearer Election Day if the request is made in person.

Fifteen states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C. have statutory deadlines for absentee/mail ballot applications that are more than seven days before the election:

  • Alaska, Arizona, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, Texas, Virgin Islands and Virginia.

Seven states set their statutory deadlines for absentee/mail ballot applications at seven days (one week) before the election:

  • Arkansas, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

Twenty states have statutory deadlines for absentee/mail ballot applications that are fewer than seven days before the election:

  • Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

The remaining eight states conduct all-mail elections.

For more information on each state's laws, see Table 5: Applying for an Absentee Ballot, Including Third Party Registration Drives.

How Do Election Officials Verify Applications for Absentee Ballots?

Absentee/mail ballot applications require voters to provide identifying information—name, address, date of birth and often a signature, driver’s license number or the final four digits of the voter’s social security number.

When election officials receive an application from a voter, they use that information to verify the voter’s identity and eligibility 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.

Twenty-six states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands compare an applicant’s information and eligibility against the voter registration record:

  • Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Texas, Virgin Islands, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Eleven states conduct signature verification in addition to checking information and eligibility against the voter registration record:

  • Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Tennessee.

To conduct verification, a few states require voters to provide additional information at the time of application, such as a copy of ID or notarized application. These states may then verify the voter’s information against the voter registration record or against the provided information.

  • Alabama, Kentucky, South Dakota and Wisconsin require voters to provide a copy of ID. (Voters in South Dakota may submit a notarized oath in lieu of a copy of photo ID.) In Wisconsin, the ballot application information is checked against the enclosed ID; Alabama, Kentucky and South Dakota verify the provided information against the voter registration record.
  • Mississippi requires a notarized application. No further verification is done at the time of application.
  • South Carolina requires voters to sign an oath. No further verification is done at the time of application.

Alaska, North Dakota and Washington, D.C., issue the ballot upon receipt of the application. These states and others verify the voter’s identity upon receipt of the ballot.

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

When Are Absentee/Mail Ballots Sent to Voters Who Request Them?

After a voter has applied for an absentee/mail ballot and that application has been verified, election officials mail out the ballots. While a few states do not specify start dates for mailing ballots, in general, states begin mailing absentee/mail ballots during one of four time frames, as noted below.

As absentee ballot applications arrive after the start date, election officials continue mailing out ballots throughout the run-up to the election, either for a designated period or right up until Election Day.

In California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington, voters are automatically mailed ballots.

  • Ten states begin mailing ballots to voters more than 45 days before the election: Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
  • Eleven states begin mailing ballots to voters 45 days before the election: Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming.
  • Fourteen states begin mailing ballots to voters 30-45 days before the election: Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, South Carolina and Vermont.
  • Fourteen states begin mailing ballots to voters fewer than 30 days before the election: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

Visit Table 7: When States Mail Out Absentee Ballots for more information.

Which States Must Provide Secrecy Sleeves for Ballots?

Many states have statutory requirements detailing what election officials must include in the mailings that go out to voters who have requested absentee/mail ballots or who will receive mail ballots automatically. Seventeen states and the Virgin Islands require that absentee/mail voters be provided with a secrecy sleeve. A secrecy sleeve—sometimes known as a privacy sleeve, inner envelope or identification envelope—is a paper document intended to protect voters’ privacy by separating their identity and signature from their ballot. After completing an absentee/mail ballot, a voter places it inside the secrecy sleeve, which then goes inside the return envelope.

Other states or jurisdictions may choose to use secrecy sleeves. In Maryland, for example, local election boards can choose whether to include them (MD Code, Election Law, § 9-310), and Colorado’s ballot mailings include an instruction sheet that can double as a secrecy sleeve if the voter so chooses.

The additional paper can increase the cost of ballot mailings, however. And secrecy sleeves may be unnecessary if the election jurisdiction has a different process to ensure a voter’s privacy when ballots are opened.

For more information, see Table 13: States that Must Provide Secrecy Sleeves for Absentee/Mail Ballots.

Returning a Voted Absentee/Mail Ballot

All states allow the return of absentee/mail ballots through the mail. Almost all states also permit voters to return a voted 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, some states permit voters to drop off a voted absentee/mail ballot at Election Day voting locations or in secure drop boxes.

In this section you will find:

Which States Permit Voters to Drop Voted Absentee Ballots Off at Voting Locations?

Voters in almost all states can return a voted absentee/mail ballot at the county election official’s office. Some states also allow voters to return ballots at other voting locations, such as early in-person voting locations. Note: Ballot drop boxes, which may be located at polling places, are addressed in the next section.

Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., have statutes allowing voters to return ballots at voting locations, such as Election Day polling places, vote centers and early in-person voting locations.

  • Arizona (AZ Rev Stat § 16-547, § 16-1005)
  • California (West's Ann. Cal. Elec. Code § 3025, § 3015, § 3017)
  • Colorado (C.R.S.A. § 1-7.5-107.2)
  • District of Columbia (D.C. Mun. Regs. Tit. 3, § 720)
  • Hawaii (HRS § 11-104c)
  • Kansas (KSA § 25-1132, KSA § 25-1128(g))
  • Montana (MCA 13-13-201)
  • New Mexico (NM Stat § 1-6-9)
  • North Carolina (N.C.G.S.A. § 163-231)
  • Oregon (ORS § 254.470)
  • Vermont (17 V.S.A. § 2543)
  • Virginia (VA Code Ann. § 24.2-707.1)
  • Washington (West's RCWA 29A.40.091, 29A.40.160)
  • Wisconsin (W.S.A. 6.87)

Which States Have Laws Governing Ballot Drop Boxes?

Some states provide ballot drop boxes, receptacles where voters can return absentee/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 ballot drop boxes set minimum requirements for where they must be located, how many a county must or can have, hours they must be available and security standards.

Twenty-three states have laws addressing drop boxes:

  • Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.

Note that additional states may permit the use of drop boxes without explicit statutory provisions or leave it to the discretion of individual jurisdictions.

For more information, see Table 9: Ballot Drop Box Laws.

Who Can Collect and Drop Off an Absentee/Mail Ballot on Behalf of a Voter?

Sometimes a voter is 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. Returning ballots for others is known as ballot collection or, pejoratively, “ballot harvesting.”  

Thirty-one states explicitly permit someone to return an absentee/mail ballot on behalf of a voter:

  • Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas.

Many of these states limit this provision to a family member, household member or caregiver.

Sixteen states, however, allow a voter to designate someone—not necessarily a family member, household member or caregiver—to return their ballot for them:

  • Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, South Carolina and South Dakota.

Among the 31 states where a voter can authorize someone to return a ballot on their behalf, some place limits on how many and when ballots can be returned. These limits may prevent those returning ballots for others from campaigning or encouraging voters to vote in a certain way. Nine states limit how many ballots an authorized person can return:

  • Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, South Dakota and West Virginia.

And four states limit how long those ballots can remain in the authorized person’s possession:

  • Iowa, Maine, Nevada and Oregon.

Alabama specifies that an absentee ballot must be returned by the voter either in person or by mail.

The remaining 18 states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C. either do not specify whether an agent or family member may return an absentee/mail ballot on behalf of a voter, or use more open language, such as a voter shall “cause” a ballot to be returned. Interpretations of what this means vary. In some states, it may mean absentee/mail ballot collection is generally accepted, and in others it may mean that this practice is not permitted.

  • Alaska, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virgin Islands, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

States may also restrict whether candidates or campaign staff can serve as a designated agent to return an absentee/mail ballot, impose crimes on those who violate ballot collection laws and more. States may also have different provisions for absentee voting in case of a personal emergency or for voters who require assistance.

Find more comprehensive information on Table 10: Ballot Collection Laws.

When Must Absentee/Mail Ballots be Received by Election Officials?

Absentee/mail ballots are typically returned by mail or hand delivery, and the most common deadline for absentee/mail ballots to be returned, regardless of the method, is by the close of polls on Election Day.

No states allow hand-delivered ballots to be returned after Election Day, but five require hand-delivered ballots to be received before Election Day:

  • Arkansas, Connecticut, Louisiana, North Dakota and Vermont.

Thirty states require absentee/mail ballots returned by mail to be received on or before Election Day. These are colloquially known as “received by” states.

  • Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Nineteen states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C. will accept and count a mailed ballot if it is received after Election Day but postmarked on or before (sometimes only before) Election Day. Because what constitutes a postmark is changing and less mail gets truly postmarked, many states will accept an Intelligent Mail barcode as evidence. These are colloquially known as “postmarked by” states.

  • Alaska, California, District of Columbia, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Texas, Utah, Virgin Islands, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.

Louisiana requires all absentee ballots, regardless of method, to be received the day before the election.

See Table 11: Receipt and Postmark Deadlines for Absentee/Mail Ballots for details.

At least six states accept ballots from military or overseas voters after Election Day if the envelope is postmarked prior to the deadline:

  • Arkansas: 10 days after the election (Ark. Code Ann. 7-5-411).
  • Indiana: 10 days after the election (IC 3-12-1-17).
  • Florida: 10 days of the election (Flor. Stat. Ann. 101.6952(5)).
  • Missouri: 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: by 5 p.m. seven days after the election (25 P.S. 3146.8).
  • South Carolina: the day before the county canvass (S.C. Code 7-15-700).

Which States Have Systems for Voters To Track Their Absentee/Mail 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 expanded to all absentee/mail voters to track when their ballot has been sent out by election officials, when the election official receives the marked ballot back and whether the ballot was accepted for counting.

At least 20 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)
  • New York (McKinney's Election Law § 8-414)
  • 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 § 86.015)
  • Utah (U.C.A. 1953 § 20A-3a-401.5)
  • 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/mail ballots, even if not required by statute, include Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Some states may choose to 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, delivered to the voter’s home by the U.S. Postal Service, received by the election official, etc.

Which States Pay for Postage To Return an Absentee/Mail Ballot?

In most cases, it is up to the voter to pay for postage to return an absentee/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 potential issue is to have ballot drop boxes widely available (see the section on drop boxes above). In states that hold all-mail 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.

Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., require local election officials to provide return postage for mailed ballots. 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, California, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
  • New Jersey leaves it up to the discretion of county clerks to provide a postage paid envelope (N.J.S.A. 19:63-12).

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 most 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 pay for that service themselves.

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

Processing, Verifying and Counting Absentee/Mail Ballots

An increase in absentee/mail ballots can delay results reporting because absentee/mail ballots require more time to be processed before they can be counted. Depending on state law, some states may verify the identity of the voter, remove ballots from envelopes and perhaps scan them (but not calculate totals) prior to Election Day to enable faster results.

In this section you will find:

How Do Officials Verify Voted Absentee/Mail 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/mail ballot occurs in an unsupervised environment, usually at the voter’s home. Because the voter does not appear in person, election officials use other ways of verifying that the absentee/mail ballot they receive does in fact comes from the intended eligible voter.

The most common method to verify that absentee/mail ballots come from the intended voter is to conduct signature verification. When voters return an absentee/mail ballot, they must sign an affidavit on the ballot envelope. When the ballot is returned to the election office, election officials in over half the states 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.

Comparing and matching signatures is done by election officials or temporary election workers, sometimes assisted by technology, and often working in bipartisan teams. In some states, especially those that send mail ballots to all eligible voters, the individuals verifying signatures undergo specialized training to analyze signatures for potential mismatches.

If a discrepancy is found, there may be an opportunity for the voter to “cure” the discrepancy. In some states, the local election official will contact the voter explaining the problem and asking them to verify their information and confirm that they did in fact cast the ballot. There is usually a period of time after the election 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/mail ballots, such as requiring voters to provide a copy of an identification document or to have the absentee/mail ballot witnessed or notarized.

Twenty-seven states conduct signature verification on returned absentee/mail ballots, which entails comparing the signature on the absentee/mail ballot envelope with a signature already on file for the voter:

  • Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington and West Virginia.

Nine states, the Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C., verify that an absentee/mail ballot envelope has been signed but do not conduct signature verification:

  • Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virgin Islands and Wyoming.

Nine states require the signature of a witness in addition to the voter’s signature. These states may conduct signature verification as well.

  • Alabama (two witnesses or a notary), 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.
  • *Military and overseas voters are exempt from this requirement.

Three states require the absentee/mail ballot envelope to be notarized:

  • Mississippi, Missouri and Oklahoma.

Arkansas requires a copy of the voter’s ID be returned with the absentee/mail ballot.

Georgia requires the voter’s driver’s license number or state identification card number, which is compared with the voter’s registration record. Minnesota and Ohio also require the driver’s license number, though Minnesota also requires a witness signature, and Ohio conducts signature verification.

For additional details on how absentee/mail ballots are verified, please visit Table 14: How States Verify Voted Absentee/Mail Ballots.

What Happens If There Is a Missing Signature or a Signature Discrepancy?

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

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 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.

Twenty-four states require election officials to notify voters when there is a missing signature or a signature discrepancy—and require that voters must be given an opportunity to correct it:

  • Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.

In the remaining 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 one on file, the ballot is not counted. In some cases, voters may be informed after the election that their ballot as rejected, but they do not have the opportunity to correct it for it to be counted.

Visit Table 15: States With Signature Cure Processes for more details.

When Can Election Officials Begin To Process and Count Absentee/Mail Ballots?

Absentee/mail ballots must be processed before they can be counted, and in many states, that processing can begin before ballots are allowed to be counted. 

Processing

“Processing” means different things in different states, but typically the first step is to compare the signature on the outside of the return envelope with 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 be opened and the ballot prepared for tabulation by removing it from the envelope, flattening it and stacking it with other ballots. Some states may allow ballots to be run through the scanner, as well, but without hitting the “tally” button to actually obtain results.

In essence, states that begin processing before Election Day can “tee up” absentee/mail ballots so they are ready to be counted as soon as the law allows. This work speeds up the counting and reporting process on Election Day. Ask your state election officials for details on their practice.

In summary:

Thirty-eight states and the Virgin Islands permit election officials to begin processing absentee/mail ballots prior to the election:

  • Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virgin Islands, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.

Nine states and Washington, D.C., permit election officials to begin processing absentee/mail ballots on Election Day, but prior to the closing of the polls:

  • Alabama, District of Columbia, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Maryland does not permit the processing of absentee/mail ballots until after the polls close on Election Day.

And in two states and Puerto Rico, the day on which processing may begin is not specified:

  • Connecticut allows processing to begin at the discretion of the local registrar of voters.
  • Ohio allows processing to begin before counting at a time determined by the local board of elections.
  • Puerto Rico does not specify.

Counting

Counting is the act of tallying the votes on processed ballots for a result. Like “processing,” the definition of “counting” (or tabulating or tallying) can vary by state, and some states may consider counting to include scanning ballots through voting equipment without obtaining a final tally or result. NCSL defers to each state’s terminology when distinguishing between processing and counting.

Most states begin counting (or tabulating or tallying, depending on the state’s terminology) absentee/mail ballots on Election Day. Most states also prohibit election results from being released until after the polls close, and many states make it a crime to share results earlier than that.

Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., do not allow counting to begin until the polls close:

  • Alabama, Alaska, District of Columbia, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.

Twenty-three states allow counting to begin on Election Day, but before the polls close:

  • Arkansas, California, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Ten states allow counting to begin before Election Day; these are all states that allow processing to begin before Election Day as well:

  • Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada and Utah.

Connecticut leaves the time for counting to the discretion of the local registrar of voters. In the Virgin Islands, counting begins after absentee ballots have been processed but the timeline is not specified, and Puerto Rico does not specify.

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

How are Absentee/Mail Ballot Results Reported?

Most states report absentee/mail ballots at the precinct level so that it’s possible to see voter turnout by precinct regardless of voting method (in person or by absentee/mail ballot). Since absentee/mail ballots are accepted through Election Day (and for some days after in the “postmarked by” states), not all ballots will be counted on Election Day, and results won’t be available until the counting is completed.

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

Some states handle this process differently, though. Some send absentee/mail 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 further information.

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

What Are All-Mail Elections?

In all-mail elections, all registered voters are sent a ballot through the mail. The voter marks the ballot, puts it in a secrecy sleeve or envelope if required, places it in a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior of the mailing envelope and then returns the ballot via mail or by dropping it off at an approved return location.

Eight states currently conduct elections entirely by mail:

  • California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont (general elections only) and Washington.

Two states—allow counties to determine if an election will be held entirely by mail, with many but not all counties choosing to do so:

  • Nebraska and North Dakota

Nine states allow specific small elections to be conducted by mail:

  • Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming

And four states permit all-mail elections for certain small jurisdictions:

  • Idaho, Minnesota, New Jersey and New Mexico.

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 or before Election Day. For example, even though all registered voters in Colorado are mailed a ballot, voters can choose instead to cast a ballot at an in-person vote center during the early voting period or on Election Day.

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 progression toward all-mail elections includes four moments of legislative action prior to the 1998 citizens’ vote that made Oregon the first all-mail election state.

Find more details on Table 18: States With All-Mail Elections.

Security Features of Absentee/Mail Voting

As the trend toward more people voting by mail (whether by absentee ballot or in all-mail elections) has accelerated, a key question from legislators has been, how secure can we make our system?

Below are several security measures used in absentee/mail voting:

  • Absentee/mail ballots are hand-marked paper ballots. Paper ballots are considered by most to be the gold standard of election security. Absentee/mail 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). 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/mail ballot voter can be verified through signature verification. In a sense, a signature is a form of biometric identification. That is, it is unique to a particular voter. By having a voter sign an affidavit on an absentee/mail ballot envelope the voter affirms 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. If the signature cannot be verified, election officials can investigate further and potentially refer the matter to law enforcement. See above for more details on how signature verification works.
  • In most states, absentee/mail 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.” So, if there is an Election Day emergency such as a cybersecurity incident, longer lines at polling locations than anticipated, severe weather, malfunctioning equipment, an election worker shortage, etc., election officials are not scrambling to also process absentee/mail ballots on Election Day.

Even though absentee/mail voting does not occur in a supervised environment, several features can be prescribed to enhance security of the election when voting by absentee/mailed ballot.

  • Up to date voter information is the first step in ensuring the security of absentee/mail ballots. Policies that make registration updates convenient for voters and ensure robust voter list maintenance procedures can help keep voter information current. The act of sending out absentee/mail ballots also allows election officials to ensure they have up-to-date addresses for voters, and states that send out more absentee/mail ballots have seen an added benefit of “cleaner” voter lists, i.e., voter address information is kept up to date.
  • Bipartisan teams of election workers 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.
  • 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. Depending on the state, 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. Local election officials, too, can benefit from knowing where ballots are, if voters receive them, etc.
  • 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. Concerns that those who return ballots for others may also influence voters can 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 may reduce opportunities for coercion.
  • Ensuring that there are meaningful penalties for tampering with or otherwise hindering the delivery of absentee/mail ballots, and that voters are sufficiently informed of these penalties, is another way to enhance security.

Policy Decision Points

Legislators considering changes to their states’ election models are probably looking for options that may increase turnout, lower costs and be even more secure than the present system. They’re likely also to 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 top-level considerations, regardless of the nature of a proposed change.

Regarding potential shifts to more absentee/mail voting, legislators will first want to know where their state is currently. States are on a continuum, with some that require an excuse for voters to vote absentee on one end and states that send ballots to all voters on the other.

For legislators who want to consider increasing absentee/mail voting in their state, or finetuning the many details associated with processing absentee/mail ballots, here is a short list of considerations, all of which are addressed above in this report, as well.  States can:

  • Remove requirements for an affidavit or witness signature on absentee/mail 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 an absentee/mail ballot.
  • Consider whether guidance for third-party groups that want to distribute applications for absentee/mail ballots would be useful to ensure that the applications are handled in a timely manner.
  • Decide if absentee/mail 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. Doing so makes counting faster, and results can be released faster as well. The more absentee/mail ballots there are, the more significant this consideration 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 uncountable ballots will be higher for absentee/mail 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. Signature cure processes also give election officials information about possible mismatches that can be pursued to ensure that no one besides the voter has voted that ballot.
  • 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 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 mail, in-person drop off at an elections office or voting location, or possibly secure ballot drop boxes.
  • Decide whether to provide prepaid return postage, as a few 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 that there are robust voter list maintenance procedures. See NCSL’s webpage on Voter Registration List Maintenance for additional information.
  • Require reporting the number of absentee/mail ballots requested for every election, 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 if you have any questions or would like further information.

Tables

Table 1: States with No-Excuse Absentee Voting

Table 2: Excuses to Vote Absentee

Table 3: States with Permanent Absentee Voting Lists

Table 4: Removing Voters From Permanent Absentee Lists

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

Table 6: States with Online Absentee Ballot Application Portals

Table 7: When States Mail Out Absentee/Mail Ballots

Table 8: How States Verify Absentee Ballot Applications

Table 9: Ballot Drop Boxes

Table 10: Ballot Collection Laws

Table 11: Receipt and Postmark Deadlines for Absentee/Mail Ballots

Table 12: States with Postage Paid Election Mail

Table 13: States that Must Provide Secrecy Sleeves for Absentee/Mail Ballots

Table 14: How States Verify Voted Absentee/Mail Ballots

Table 15: States With Signature Cure Processes

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

Table 17: How Election Results are Reported

Table 18: All-Mail Election States 

Additional Resources