Why Elections Need Both Absentee and In-Person Voting
By Amanda Zoch
Since the COVID-19 pandemic came to our shores, mail and absentee voting have saturated state and national conversations about elections. The Canvass gave mail and absentee voting the lion’s share of our attention last month, too, and there’s no doubt that many people (including poll workers) are opting to vote at home and avoid polling places during this spring’s primary elections.
With so many policymakers and election officials encouraging more absentee voting and even debating the value and feasibility of “going all-mail,” it is worth noting that all elections are hybrid—every state has some combination of mail voting and in-person voting.
States that rely on in-person voting all have some mail and absentee voting because all states offer absentee ballots to those who will be away from home, hospitalized or otherwise unable to vote on Election Day. In West Virginia, about 2% of voters requested absentee ballots and cast their 2016 general election ballots by mail, according to data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. That same year, nearly 49% of Mainers voted outside the polling place by using the state’s provisions for no-excuse absentee voting.
Even the five states that conduct all elections by mail—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington—maintain some in-person voting. In Colorado, for example, approximately 7% of voters in the 2016 general election did so in person at voter service and polling centers either on Election Day or during early voting. Fewer than 1% of Washingtonians voted in person, but that still means that over 12,000 people chose to visit the polls on Election Day.
Especially in states where mail voting is the norm, some may wonder: Who chooses to vote in person and why?
Voters with Disabilities: There’s no doubt that polling places can present challenges for voters with disabilities, as the U.S. Government Accountability Office has shown in its 2017 report. But mail and absentee voting aren’t necessarily better options for everyone. After all, there’s no “one-size fits all” approach to making voting accessible (a point emphasized by many speakers during the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s 2020 Elections Disability, Accessibility and Security Forum). Disabilities vary widely, and every person with a disability has different needs and different technology available to them. While some voters with disabilities may be able to request large-print or Braille mail and absentee ballots, or receive their ballots electronically, others may require electronic ballot marking systems or other accommodations available only when voting in person. In fact, some people with disabilities may prefer to vote in person, using accessible voting technology located at a polling place or vote center in order to ensure they can cast ballots privately and independently.
Voters with Literacy or Language Barriers: Many voters require ballot instructions in languages other than English. While translated materials may be provided with mail or absentee ballots, bilingual and multilingual poll workers may be able to provide more direct assistance to voters with questions. A ballot and its instructions can also be intimidating for some people with low literacy, and—as the Center for Civic Design has found—printed information is not enough. These voters benefit from access to more dynamic translation services, including trained poll workers. Well-designed ballots and clear instructions can also help these voters.
Voters with No Permanent Address or Mail Delivery: Voters without permanent addresses, such as people experiencing homelessness, and voters who do not have mail delivery, such as many Native Americans, benefit from in-person voting options because mail ballots may not be able to reach them. Polling places are often far from reservations and rural communities—before 2016, voters on the Duck Valley Reservation in Idaho faced a nearly 200-mile round-trip to vote in person—which has prompted some states to provide additional polling places on tribal lands. Some Native American voters may also fall into the previous category, as reservations have a higher proportion of voters with low levels of literacy, and those voters may be better served with in-person guidance.
New Voters: In states with same day voter registration, new voters (or new-to-the-area voters) may find themselves heading to the polls to first register and then cast their ballots. While there are other remote ways to register to vote, same day registration can only take place in person.
In addition to voters who need to vote in person, the pull of civic tradition may make some people want to vote in person. Many choose to vote in person because that’s how they’ve always done it. Other people—you know who you are!—might head to the polls just to ensure they can sport an “I Voted” sticker (if one doesn’t come with a mailed ballot, that is).
Completing one’s civic duty in the company of one’s neighbors can illuminate our individual votes as a more tangible contribution to a larger, democratic process. As long-time journalist and author of "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime" Lou Cannon reflects, “since 2000 when I became a freelancer and had more control of my schedule, I've made it a point to vote in my precinct place, a church a few blocks from here. I liked seeing the earnest poll workers and the red-white-and-blue bunting and enjoyed pasting an ‘I Voted’ sticker on my shirt.”
On a personal note, this author votes by mail in Colorado. While I appreciate the ease of completing a ballot on my own time, I must admit that voting feels like less of an occasion now than it did when I trekked to the polls in Minnesota and Indiana. (But I faced lines and less flexible hours then—it turns out there may always be trade-offs, even for an average voter like myself.)
Of course, the current pandemic poses significant challenges to in-person voting. Election officials have struggled to staff polling places—an issue that will likely continue. Some people have suggested using the National Guard (which Wisconsin pioneered), youth poll workers, or closing schools on Election Day and recruiting teachers to serve as poll workers.
States have also been working to make in-person voting as safe as possible with added hygiene and social distancing guidelines. Utah is poised to make one of the biggest shifts in this regard—the legislature passed a bill (currently awaiting the governor’s signature) that would eliminate in-person voting for the Beehive State’s 2020 primary, instead offering drive-up voting on Election Day.
While some people who prefer in-person voting may choose to vote by mail or absentee ballot due to stay-at-home orders, others will still need to vote in person (or in their car?) this primary season. Even as states seek to modify their proportion of in-person to mail/absentee voting, both options are likely to be part of a complete election system for the foreseeable future.
Amanda Zoch is a policy specialist in the Elections and Redistricting Program and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow.