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Voting in the Time of Corona: The Difference between Absentee Voting and Voting-by-Mail

If election officials are going to expand voting by mail this election cycle because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s essential to examine the existing absentee and vote-by-mail infrastructure that states already have in place.

To maintain strict social distancing guidelines in upcoming elections, it’s clearly a good idea to ramp up vote-by-mail and allow absentee voting. But what would that entail?  Don’t many states already have absentee voting? Are vote-by-mail and absentee voting the same?

These are the questions that need to be asked, and here are some answers:

Absentee Voting refers to when a voter requests a ballot and, if eligible, is subsequently sent one via mail or email. Traditionally, voters are required to provide an “excuse” to qualify for absentee voting, usually pertaining to why they cannot be in a polling place in-person on Election Day. All states allow for some form of absentee voting, 17 of which still require an excuse. However, recent reforms have expanded the availability of absentee voting as a convenience option. By the end of 2019, 33 states and the District of Columbia have “no-excuse absentee voting,” in which any voter may apply for an absentee ballot without providing a justification.

However, even no-excuse absentee voting differs from strict vote-by-mail.

Vote-by-Mail (VBM) is the process of sending every registered voter a ballot without a request. While by-mail voting is the default practice in Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah, VBM states generally keep some polling places or vote centers open for those who either cannot or prefer not to vote by mail. In addition to the five VBM states, 21 additional states use vote-by-mail for a selection of smaller races.

Take a look at the below graphic for a full picture of which states allow vote-by-mail, absentee, and no-excuse absentee voting:

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Vote-by-Mail and Absentee Voting in the U.S.

  • No Excuse Absentee
  • Standard Absentee Process (Excuse Required)
  • Vote-by-Mail and No Excuse Absentee
WA OR CA ID NV WY WV WI VT VA UT TX TN SD SC RI PA OK OH NM NY NJ NH NE ND NC MT MS MO MN MI ME MD MA LA KY KS IN IL IA HI GA FL DE CT CO AZ AR AL AK DC
  • No Excuse Absentee
  • Standard Absentee Process (Excuse Required)
  • Vote-by-Mail and No Excuse Absentee
District Of Columbia
Alabama
Alaska
Arizona
Arkansas
California
Colorado
Connecticut
Delaware
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Idaho
Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Kansas
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maine
Maryland
Massachusetts
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Montana
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Ohio
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Vermont
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Wyoming

Source: “Voting Outside the Polling Place: Absentee, All-Mail and other Voting at Home Options.” National Conference of State Legislatures. Available at: https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/absentee-and-early-voting.aspx. Note: Virginia is listed as an excuse-required state by NCSL, not reflecting an expected change to Virginia’s election laws removing the excuse requirement for an absentee ballot (the bill has been approved by both chambers and has the support of the Governor).

Why does the difference matter?

As election policy has grown more complex over time, the terminology surrounding absentee and vote-by-mail has begun to blur. Some states refer to absentee voting by its categorical designation as “vote-by-mail,” while others abide by a stricter delineation between absentee and by-mail voting. These policy differences were relevant before COVID-19, but are even more important to consider now.

Nuanced language aside, the essential takeaway here is not grammatical, but substantive: states with only absentee voting in place will face additional hurdles to the implementation of vote-by-mail that traditionally VBM states will not.

States without extensive vote-by-mail infrastructure already in place are not well-equipped for an immediate transition to all vote-by-mail due to the coronavirus. According to a BPC review of federal data on voting by mail and absentee voting, 34 states had fewer than 15% of their ballots cast by mail during the 2018 federal election.

Facilitating a well-orchestrated vote-by-mail election is the equivalent of a logistical nightmare. And with a global pandemic sweeping the country, this logistical nightmare can only get worse.

States should keep in mind the following concerns when switching to an all-mail election:

  1. Confusion to Voters. A pandemic may not be the easiest time to teach voters a new voting method. When changing policies, states should continue to monitor public perception and ensure that any changes to elections are communicated quickly, clearly, and concisely. Specific areas of confusion may include: whether voters have to request a mailed ballot and pay for postage, whether voters can trust the postal service to deliver their ballots in a timely manner, and, if not, whether drop boxes are available as an alternative to mail. Additionally, with black voters’ absentee ballots rejected at a far higher rate than white voters, administrators should take additional safeguards to protect the votes of black Americans, or risk undermining the election’s legitimacy.
  2. Challenges to Election Administration. Not only will election administrators have to account for all the above points of confusion to voters, they will have to run an election, too. A successful transition to vote-by-mail would require major technology and staff upgrades, managing resources split between in-person and mail voting, adjusted ballot return deadlines, pre-paid postage, and realistic ballot processing expectations.
  3. Challenges to VBM as COVID-19 Worsens. Vote-by-mail’s Achilles’ heel is the postal service. The Washington Post reports that the long-understaffed U.S. Postal Service is beginning to reach a breaking point as the coronavirus continues to spread. To be fully prepared for a vote-by-mail election, states must develop a backup plan, such as ballot drop-boxes, in case the Postal Service is interrupted or unreliable.

These things take time and money. While the additional $400 million in emergency elections grants Congress passed as part of the CARES Act will help states’ temporary transition to vote-by-mail, it’s not enough. Running this year’s elections will be challenging, but not as challenging as they could be without considering the whole package of reforms needed for vote-by-mail to succeed.

The move towards vote-by-mail in the face of COVID-19 is a necessary one, especially for primary elections being conducted over the next few months. However, we must remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to election administration. Policy changes which fail to reflect states’ existing election statutory infrastructure (namely, vote-by-mail versus absentee) will fall short of their intended results.

With new and pressing challenges arriving constantly, it is easy to forget how much influence the past still has on the present. Coronavirus-related election reform will not succeed if it does not account for the existing state of policy and resource allocation.

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