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Options to Vote in Person Before Election Day Have Grown

Laws addressing ballot collection and drop boxes are among the other lasting changes states made during the pandemic, according to a new NCSL report.

By Lisa Ryckman  |  October 26, 2023

The biggest change to voting since 2020—when the pandemic caused an unprecedented disruption in a presidential election year—might come as a surprise.

Anyone who thinks it must be the expansion of easier voting by mail would be wrong, says Wendy Underhill, director of NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

“There’s been a great deal of political and media attention paid to absentee, or mail, voting, starting in 2020,” she says. “Even so, our research shows that the number of states that offer no-excuse absentee voting as a permanent policy has hardly budged.”

“All states have at least some absentee voting, and all states have to consider the fine points that make their systems strong.”

—Wendy Underhill, NCSL

NCSL’s recent report, “The Evolution of Absentee/Mail Voting Laws, 2020-22,” found that just one of the 14 states that made voting absentee easier for the 2020 election retained that change; the rest reverted back to requiring a reason.

So, what has changed?

“The option for voters to vote in person before Election Day did expand significantly since 2020, with now just a small handful of states continuing to have Election Day in-person voting as their standard,” Underhill says.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the existing slow trend toward mostly-mail elections. At the start of 2020, five states conducted elections almost entirely by mail; by the 2022 general election, eight states did, and Washington, D.C., made the change in 2023.

In 2021 and 2022, legislatures drove the discussion and changes to voting procedures. In 2021, 3,677 election-related bills were introduced in state legislatures—25% more than in any previous odd-numbered year since 2001—and 290 were enacted, on par with the last several odd-numbered years. In 2022, 2,120 bills were introduced, with 280 enactments.

Other key findings:

  • In 2020, 27 states plus Washington, D.C., allowed absentee ballot processing to begin before Election Day. Now, 40 states plus the district allow early processing.
  • Because of the pandemic, philanthropies offered funds to assist election administrators. Since then, 24 states have prohibited the acceptance or use of such funding, the first time any laws have addressed the practice.
  • To give voters maximum choice in the pandemic election of 2020, a dozen “no-excuse absentee states” mailed absentee/mail ballot applications to voters; this was the most notable election administration adaptation in 2020 to COVID. That practice was not continued post-2020 in any state, and three states have since prohibited doing so again. 
  • In 2020, eight states adjusted the deadline for receiving absentee applications; of those, seven moved their deadlines earlier, with the goal of providing election administrators time to send ballots out and voters to return them.
  • In 2020, eight states and the district temporarily delayed the deadline for receiving voted absentee/mail ballots. In 2021 and 2022, three of these states made the later deadlines permanent, while the other states either reverted to their pre-2020 deadlines or chose a different deadline. 
  • Laws related to ballot collection, or “harvesting,” that defined who other than the voter can return a voted absentee/mail ballot, were in place in 31 states in January 2020. Before the November 2020 election, three more states added definitions. In 2021 and 2022, six states adjusted their laws on who can return a voted ballot and how many ballots they can return.
  • Few states addressed ballot drop boxes before the pandemic. By November 2022, 29 states had laws governing their use, including how many can or must be provided, and what security measures must be in place. Three other states prohibited their use.

Over time, most states have become less restrictive on when voters can choose to “vote absentee,” the reports says. Many states no longer require voters to provide an excuse at all, and a handful of states automatically mail ballots to all active voters. That translates to a slow increase in voters’ use of absentee/mail ballots since at least 1996.

“Absentee, or mail, voting isn’t just a yes-no policy decision,” Underhill says. “All states have at least some absentee voting, and all states have to consider the fine points that make their systems strong. This report details many of those policy points.”

Lisa Ryckman is NCSL’s associate director of communications.

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