How Mail-In Voting and Absentee Ballots Work

More Americans than ever before can vote by mail this year, as states prepare to hold an election under the conditions of a pandemic.

But President Trump’s false claims about the risks of mail voting, problems at the Postal Service and the sheer variety of rules around mail voting — many of them changed because of the global health crisis — have created confusion about the systems.

But despite Mr. Trump’s claims about the dangers of mail voting, the practice has been a part of American elections for over a century, and experts say his allegations of widespread fraud are unfounded.

It depends on the state.

But for many voters and election officials, the terms have become interchangeable. “I’m not sure there is a universally held distinction,” said John C. Fortier, the director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Some states have made voting by mail available to all registered voters; others make it widely available; and some require voters to meet specific criteria, like being sick or serving in the military.

“The biggest distinction is that absentee was meant to be for people who really needed it,” Mr. Fortier said. The term absentee was used for most of the 20th century, but as mail voting became more widely available in its last few decades, other terms emerged.

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This year, a record 76 percent of American voters will be eligible to receive a ballot in the mail for the 2020 election. Every state allows some voting by mail, but some require a specified reason or make the ballot available only at a voter’s request.

Eight states, including Texas, New York and South Carolina, require an explained excuse for absentee voting. Thirty-three states, including Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio, allow absentee voting for all residents without specifying a reason. (Mr. Trump has requested a mail-in ballot from Florida for this year’s presidential election.) And nine states, including Utah, California and Nevada, mail ballots directly to voters. Read more about those breakdowns here.

Election officials in many states, concerned about the potential for transmission of the coronavirus at polling places, have made temporary changes to their rules so that more people can vote by mail. Rules also vary between states about whether a ballot must be received by Election Day, or only postmarked by then. And some states will let voters drop off their ballots at secure drop boxes — though the Republican National Committee has contested Pennsylvania’s plan to do that in court.

Election officials vet mail ballots with a series of checks. Voter registration information shows whether a person is registered elsewhere in the state, and identifying details like a birth date and Social Security number to help confirm that someone is a real person. Almost every state requires voters to sign the ballot’s return envelope, and election workers crosscheck that signature in the voter registration system.

Washington State has mostly been a vote-by-mail state since 2005. There, ballots are also tied to specific individuals, with unique bar codes that let voters track their ballot after it was mailed — like a package heading to its destination. (Safeguards like the bar code also make it difficult for anyone to print fraudulent ballots without detection.)

When officials find problems with voter information, signatures or other details, they contact the voter to account for the issue. If necessary, they send the ballots to prosecutors to investigate.

ImageAbsentee ballots at a polling station in Wisconsin. Experts say allegations of widespread fraud in absentee or mail-in voting are unfounded.
Credit…Lauren Justice for The New York Times

Voting by mail in the United States dates at least to the middle of the 19th century, when another national crisis prevented voters from casting their ballots at home. “We have this burst during the Civil War, when almost all the people of younger ages were away,” said Mr. Fortier, an author of a book on absentee voting.

After the election of 1864, however, voting by mail diminished as another concern took priority: protections against the power of party machines and their allies. “In the late 19th century, the polling place had a major revolution in the institution of the secret ballot,” Mr. Fortier said. Over the decades, states enacted measures that ended longstanding practices — like voting by putting a colored ballot in a glass jar — and created a new, more private system.

Their aim, Mr. Fortier said, was to protect voters from the pressure of outside forces like party bosses, employers, unions or neighbors. By the early 20th century, pressure started anew for a way to vote from a distance, he said: “We were becoming a much more mobile country. People are out, traveling for work, building these railroads out West. In another category, people are sick, or away from home.”

The solution for many states was more voting by mail, a trend that continued for decades, especially in the West. By the 1960s and ’70s, every state offered some ability for people to cast their vote by mail. Some states continued to expand the opportunity. In 1978, California became the first state to allow absentee voting without an excuse, for example, and in 2000, Oregon became the first state to conduct a presidential election entirely by mail. Utah, Washington and Colorado are among the other states to move to a system that is mostly by mail.

Voter fraud, at polling places or in the mail, is very rare. Studies have found few credible allegations of fraud in past elections, and a commission that Mr. Trump had charged with investigating election corruption found no real evidence of fraud before he disbanded it.

“There are election integrity issues, and some of them are particular to absentee ballots,” Mr. Fortier said. “But there is not evidence that there is widespread fraud in any part of the system or absentee system, certainly not in the numbers of millions or nationwide.”

Experts say that the mail-voting system is more vulnerable to fraud than voting in person, but that both were limited to isolated cases, often in local elections. One of the most prominent cases was the 2018 race for North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District, in which an operative who rounded up absentee ballots for the Republican candidate was charged with election fraud.

But that case, experts said, also highlighted that any fraud big enough to tilt a major election — stealing enough envelopes out of mailboxes, printing enough fake ballots or harvesting enough absentee votes — would be incredibly difficult to hide at the district, state or national level.

Mike Baker, Stephanie Saul and Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting.

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