Since the pandemic hit, absentee voting—aka vote by mail and voting at home—has increased as a way for voters to avoid exposure to COVID-19.
In June, voting by mail faced big tests when 23 states and Washington, D.C., held state or presidential primaries, or both. In Colorado, Maryland, Montana and Nevada, a ballot was mailed to every voter; in Colorado that is standard practice, and in Montana the governor gave counties permission to do so because of COVID-19 concerns—and all did so. In Georgia, Iowa, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota and West Virginia, election authorities sent absentee ballot request forms to voters, encouraging them to vote absentee.
In line with that move, local election officials scaled back the number of in-person polling places. (The fact that coronavirus made it harder than ever to recruit poll workers also led to the reduction in polling places.)
This year’s primary elections have worked fine so far in terms of accurately counting votes, and turnout has been high. But in many urban areas, wait times at in-person polling places were long. The reason: When large numbers of voters couldn’t get their absentee ballots in time, they showed up in person, and those polling places weren’t prepared for the volume. It also took longer to get final results because in many states ballots that are postmarked by Election Day can still be counted in the days afterward.
Lines aren’t an issue in states where every election is conducted by mail and officials have worked out the bugs. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington send ballots to all voters, while maintaining some amount of in-person voting as well.
Twenty-nine other states and Washington, D.C., offer “no-excuse” absentee voting, allowing any voter to request a mail-in ballot, no reason required. The remaining 16 states require voters to provide a reason for not being able to cast a ballot in person on Election Day. The most common excuses allowed are that the voter will be out of town, is ill, is elderly, must work, is a student living elsewhere or has religious objections. Forty states, including some that require a reason to receive an absentee ballot, offer early in-person voting options as well.
While states run the gamut from requiring a voter to provide a reason to vote absentee to sending a ballot to all voters, they all have one thing in common: Some voters vote in person, and others vote at home. In other words, hybrid voting systems are the norm. That means policymakers are balancing the two types of voting, and voters are deciding which is their own best option. With the balance now shifting toward more mail voting, state and local election officials are retooling to accommodate the influx.
Retooling can include opening an online portal for voters to request their ballot, as Arizona, Idaho, Indiana and Kentucky have done this year based on the increased interest in absentee voting, bringing the total of states with an electronic way to request a ballot to 20. Some states mailed a ballot application to all voters in the primaries, giving them a heads-up that they have that choice. If states continue to encourage mail voting in November, election officials and voters will all want to make their choices early to avoid problems that surfaced in the primaries.
Safeguarding Against Fraud
To guard against fraud in absentee voting, some states require voters to sign their ballot envelopes; the signatures are then matched with those captured in state voter rolls. Other states track mailed ballots with bar codes to and from voters’ homes.
Voting by mail has increased turnout, especially in special elections and smaller local elections. As for any partisan effect, recent studies show that voting by mail is neutral, although some Republicans, including President Trump, aren’t so sure about that. And, while mostly-mail elections are convenient for many voters, they can be inconvenient for others. For people who move frequently, can’t read or are American Indians and Alaska Natives, mail delivery issues and language barriers make all-mail voting nearly impossible.
Wendy Underhill is the director of NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.
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