Policy Decisions on Voting Outside Polling Places
We used to go to movie theaters for entertainment. Now we stream movies online. We used to visit the post office or bank in person. Now we send emails and do banking tasks on our phones.
When given a choice between going out and staying in, people are opting for the comfort of their own homes.
More voters are choosing to stay home too. Not that they won’t vote—instead, they’ll vote outside a polling place by casting an absentee (or mail) ballot.
Instances of voting by mail or absentee ballot are on the rise. Some states, such as Colorado, have implemented all-mail voting. Others have adopted no-excuse absentee voting, which is when any voter can request a mail ballot. Michigan and Pennsylvania recently made the switch—although the two states took different routes to get there. In 2018, Michigan Ballot Proposal 3 was approved by voters and established no-excuse absentee voting. In 2019, Pennsylvania enacted no-excuse absentee voting as part of a bipartisan effort to update its election system.
Pros and Cons
The debate about whether to permit more absentee/mail ballot voting is a worthy one. Advocates tout efficiency, voter convenience, potentially increased turnout, and the fact that it’s harder and harder to get poll workers to run traditional polling places.
Opponents point to the upfront cost of change (even if there are long-term savings), concerns about whether ballots outside the control of election officials can be kept safe and potentially slower election results.
Much could be said on all those points, but with two-thirds of the states either allowing all voters to vote absentee (or sending ballots to all voters), the trend is clear.
For states where absentee voting is rising, the policy debate moves from, “Should we make the move?” to, “How can we best implement the change?” In other words, once legislators make the big decision, many smaller choices remain.
Let’s take a look at some of those policy choices.
Do you want to permit no-excuse absentee voting, or do you want to encourage it?
It’s one thing to permit no-excuse absentee voting; it’s another to encourage it. Local election officials may encourage it to reduce pressures on Election Day; political campaigns may see more pre-Election Day voting as less work for them to get out the vote on Election Day; and voters may like having an “election period” to vote their ballot, rather than just Election Day.
States that want to encourage more absentee voting can do so in a variety of ways. First, a state can provide an online portal for registered voters to request an absentee ballot, on the theory that if asking for a ballot is easier, more voters will go that route. At least 10 states and Washington, D.C., have an online portal that permits voters to request an absentee/mailed ballot: Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia.
Second, lawmakers can authorize creating a permanent absentee list—known to some as a single sign-on option. With a permanent list, a voter tells election officials just once that they want an absentee ballot, and as long as they keep voting, they’ll keep getting ballots sent. In 2019, New Jersey created a permanent absentee list, and Alabama did so for voters with permanent disabilities.
Third, states can either go all-mail or allow counties the option of going all-mail. In 2019, Hawaii joined Colorado, Oregon and Washington in sending ballots to all voters, and California and Utah leave it up to counties to decide—with most counties opting in for all-mail.
When can ballots be processed?
Voted absentee (or mail) ballots start flowing in well before Election Day. Each one needs to have the signature on the envelope verified (the absentee voting equivalent of a voter ID requirement), the outer envelope removed, the ballot separated from the secrecy sleeve and the crease flattened—all before running the ballot through a scanner.
In many states, those processing steps can be done as the ballots arrive—everything up to, but not including, pushing the “tabulate” button. Results can then be tabulated minutes after the polls close. Colorado’s law is explicit that processing can begin 15 days prior to Election Day but that “no information concerning the count shall be released by the election officials or watchers until after 7 p.m. on election day.”
In other states, the law stipulates that processing can’t start until Election Day arrives, or maybe even until the polls close. That means signature verification and envelope-opening are added to the usual Election Day jobs. As more people use absentee ballots, results reporting can slow down.
What happens if a ballot is returned and there’s a problem with the signature?
Stuff happens: Spouses may accidentally put their ballots in each other’s envelopes. A voter forgets to sign the outside envelope. A signature doesn’t look similar enough to those on file for trained bipartisan reviewers to call it a match.
The response to a signature problem depends on the state. In some states, the ballots (still in their envelopes) are set aside as uncountable. In other states, the voters are notified that there’s a problem and are given a chance to fix it. This works best when voters have provided a phone number or email address, but even a mailed notice saying “please contact us so we can count your ballot” will improve the count rate. In 2019, for example, Kansas began requiring that voters have the opportunity to make sure their vote counts.
Problems on the ballot, however, can't be fixed. If the voter puts a check mark by the candidate, rather than fills in the oval, the vote doesn't count. This would be caught in a polling place when the voter slides the ballot into a scanner, which would kick it back for a re-do. With absentee voting, once the ballot is out of its envelope, there's no way to give the voter a do-over.
When must ballots arrive at the election office?
There are two major answers to this question: Either ballots must be received by the close of polls on Election Day, or they need to be postmarked (or otherwise clocked by the U.S. Postal Service) by Election Day. This second approach is used in Alabama, Alaska, California, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Texas, Utah, Washington and West Virginia. Requiring receipt of the voted ballot by Election Day means no waiting for late-coming ballots and will lead to quicker results reporting.
Who can return a voted ballot—just the voter, or others?
Sometimes a voter can’t return their ballot, so they ask a family member or friend to do so. Is that OK? Campaign staff or volunteers may go door to door asking if ballots are completed, and if so, offering to return them for the voter. Is that OK?
States have different answers to those questions. On one side of the continuum, Alabama says the voter must return the ballot. In the middle, nine states allow a family member to return a ballot for a voter, and on the other side, 27 states allow the voter to designate someone to return their ballot for them. Thirteen states are silent on the issue.
Among the 27 states where a voter can designate someone to return their ballot, 12 have placed limits on the number of ballots any one agent can collect and return. Returning ballots for others is known as ballot collection or, pejoratively, “ballot harvesting.” The limits are based on the concern that saving someone the task of returning their ballot can bleed into encouraging them to vote a certain way and then returning the ballot. If this service is offered just in areas where one party or the other is strongest, it can benefit the party that collects the ballots. In the 2018 election, this issue came to the fore in California.
In January, an Arizona limit on the number of ballots any one person can return was ruled by a federal appeals court to violate the Voting Rights Act. A further appeal is possible.
Should postage be paid by the state?
Some states have begun guaranteeing postage for returned ballots—Oregon and Washington did so in 2019.
Paying postage remains the choice in a minority of cases, though it may not be as costly as it might first appear. Many voters opt for dropping off their ballots at election offices or 24-hour secure drop boxes, when that’s a choice. Legislators may need to provide authority for the use of secure drop boxes or can require them, as Washington did in 2017.
One note: The U.S. Postal Service has a policy of delivering all election mail, regardless of postage. Not that election officials want to create an unfunded mandate for others!
Will more absentee/mail voting affect some populations more than others?
Rural populations with spotty access to mail, as well as urban voters who move frequently, may be negatively affected by absentee/mail voting.
Native Americans living on reservations, in particular, may experience hurdles. Some reservations aren’t platted, which means residents might not have a postal address. Some people may share a P.O. box, but that can make it difficult to receive the correct ballot and ensure privacy.
Literacy is also an issue for some populations. Ballots are often written in college-level English, and those voting at home with limited proficiency may not have the resources to understand and correctly complete their ballot.
Want to know more?
Read NCSL’s new report, “Voting Outside the Polling Place: Absentee, All-Mail and Other Voting at Home Options.”