Absentee Ballot Voting: An Explainer from U.S. Vote Foundation

What is Absentee Voting?

Absentee voting is a way for you to cast a ballot in an election without voting in-person at a polling place or vote center. If you’ll be “absent” from your polling place, either with or without an “excuse” or reason, then you can vote by absentee ballot at a more convenient time. For some people, especially those with time-consuming commitments, absentee voting allows them to fulfill their civic duty without compromising their roles as parents, caregivers, workers, or students.

Many people interchangeably use the terms “absentee voting” and “vote-by-mail.” We explain the difference below.

Note: If you’re in the military or living abroad, we’ve created an Overseas and Military Voting guide that walks you through your specific process for absentee voting, which differs from the domestic absentee voting process.

A Look at History and How Absentee Voting Developed

During the Civil War, absentee voting was made available for soldiers fighting their battles while away from home. Since then, states began passing their own absentee voting laws and considerable progress has been made. Absentee voting is now so well-established and proven that some states promote it over all other methods of voting. The first state in the nation to allow a citizen to vote absentee without any excuse was California in the late 1970s.

How to Vote Absentee

First thing: ensure you’re registered to vote and check your state’s voting options to see if it offers all-mail voting, no-excuse absentee voting, or absentee voting with an excuse. Once that is confirmed, you can request your absentee ballot.

You can accomplish all of this on the U.S. Vote Foundation (US Vote) site:

  1. Check your state’s absentee voting options
  2. Confirm your voter registration status
  3. Register to vote, and
  4. Request your ballot.

If your state only permits voting by absentee ballot with a qualifying excuse then you must see if you qualify before requesting an absentee ballot. Sixteen states have such rules. Examples of qualifying excuses for states that require a reason to vote absentee might be, you’ll be out of the county on Election Day, are hospitalized, or have a disability. More information will be provided on these distinctions below.

The Difference Between “No-excuse Absentee Voting” and “Absentee Voting with an Excuse”

States with no-excuse absentee voting permit voters to request and vote by absentee ballot, even if they don’t have an excuse as to why they can’t vote in person on Election Day. 

Check US Vote’s State Voter Information to see your state's options. If you have further questions, check into the US Vote Voter Help Desk to submit your question, or contact your local election official to see if you can vote by absentee ballot in your state.

Understanding the Terminology of “Vote-by-Mail”

Some states implement vote-by-mail across the board, automatically for all voters – also referred to as all-mail elections. In these states, election officials automatically send all registered voters a ballot in the mail, without waiting for the voter to submit an extra ballot request.

Citizens can vote at their convenience, return a ballot through any number of ways (by mail, in person, or at a drop box), and track it every step of the way. As of 2022, eight states implement all vote-by-mail: California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Utah, and (for general elections only) Vermont.

Do note, however, that if you are a voter from one of these states and are away from usual voting address during the election, you will have to submit an absentee ballot request to have the ballot sent to your location.

One of the many benefits of all vote-by-mail is that it increases overall participation: “turnout increased an average of 5.6% during the 2020 presidential election in states that automatically mailed a ballot to every registered voter. The effects of mail-ballot delivery were even greater in jurisdictions with historically low mail-ballot usage, boosting turnout by as much as 8%.”

Benefits of Absentee Voting/Vote-by-Mail

To be sure, absentee voting and vote-by-mail facilitated a smooth election in 2020, when the country was still in the thick of a pandemic and citizens lacked access to Covid-19 vaccines. Some research indicates, whether during 2020 or otherwise, that implementation of vote-by-mail across all states could boost overall turnout.

More specifically, absentee voting can enhance participation among voters of color, just as it did during Covid’s peak: “mail-ballot usage among African American voters in 2020 skyrocketed. In Michigan, for instance, absentee voting among African American voters increased by nearly 47%. Similarly in Pennsylvania, use of mail ballots among African American voters rose to 42%, while mail-ballot use among Asian American and Pacific Islander voters increased nearly 56%. Similar trends were found for Latino voters.”

Absentee Voting and ID Requirements

A handful of states require voters to enclose a photocopy of their ID together with their completed absentee ballot before returning it. This is state specific. Please read your absentee ballot instructions closely to be sure you comply with the ID requirements. Contact your local election official to find out more.

Witness and Notary Signature Requirements

Like so many other aspects of the voting process, witness and notary requirements vary by state. Again, it depends on your state’s rules. Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Dakota require you to sign your absentee ballot in the presence of a notary public. Several others – Alabama, Alaska, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin – require that you sign your absentee ballot in the presence of an adult (someone 18 or older). We talk you through obtaining those signature’s here.

Future of Absentee Voting After COVID Pandemic

Check your state’s voting methods and options to ensure you can still vote absentee, given that former pandemic restrictions may no longer apply where you live. In most cases, the answer will be, yes, you can still vote by absentee ballot. But that’s not always true. Alabama, for example, allowed those impacted by Covid-19 to vote absentee in 2020; however, it no longer permits concerns regarding the virus as a reason to vote absentee.

Safety and Security of Absentee Voting

Absentee voting, or vote-by-mail, ensures election security. As the New York Times reported in 2020, “states that use vote-by-mail have encountered essentially zero fraud: Oregon, the pioneer in this area, has sent out more than 100 million mail-in ballots since 2000, and has documented only about a dozen cases of proven fraud.” The Brennan Center for Justice notes, that amounts to “0.00001 percent of all votes cast".

States using vote-by-mail, or those permitting absentee voting, safeguard their elections systems through a number of mechanisms: by matching the signature on the ballot with the one in the registration record, tracking bar codes on ballots, and conducting post-election audits, among other things. These methods, some of which have been employed for decades, keep elections safe and secure.

Popularity and Benefits of Absentee Voting

Absentee voting is more popular than ever. In 2020, 65 million voters successfully cast absentee ballots! Absentee voting makes life easier. And it’s a secure way to vote.

Most Americans, we’re happy to report, like voting absentee: according to the Pew Research Center, 65% of voters favor access to no-excuse absentee voting, meaning you could cast a ballot from home even if nothing was physically preventing you from getting to the polling place. At US Vote, we learned through our 2020 post-election survey that the vast majority of voters – domestic (95%), overseas (85%), and military (90%) – were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their absentee voting experience.

Absentee Ballot Pickup and Delivery by Relatives or Caretakers

In several states, a relative or caretaker can both pick up an absentee ballot and deliver your completed one to your election office. Contact your local election official to find out if you can send a representative on your behalf.

Ballot Return Deadlines

Most states require that your completed ballot be either postmarked or received by Election Day. Check your state’s absentee ballot request and return deadlines, and put in a request soon!

Changing Your Mind After Receiving an Absentee Ballot

Some people decide, after requesting and receiving an absentee ballot, that they’d rather join their friends and family at the polling place instead of voting by mail. In some instances, that may be fine.

You might be able to vote using a regular ballot after surrendering your absentee ballot or may need to vote provisionally. Each state has different rules for voting in-person after having requested an absentee ballot. US Vote has compiled a convenient chart that informs you of your state’s rules.

How to Return an Absentee Ballot

Once again, each state has different rules, so depending on where you live, you have varying options. Postal return is always an option. Refer to US Vote’s Ballot Return Options chart as to whether you can also return a completed ballot at a drop box, election office, polling place, or vote center.

Ballot Tracking Methods

Once you request an absentee ballot you generally have several opportunities to track the process through four main steps:

  1. when the election office receives your request,
  2. when the election office mails the ballot to your home,
  3. when the elections office receives your completed ballot, and
  4. when your ballot gets counted.

Many states use “ballot tracking” technology. You can find the link to your state’s ballot tracking system in the State Lookup Tools section of the US Vote State Voter Information directory or go to the US Vote “Where’s My Ballot?” chart.

Ballot tracking technology is based on the printing of bar codes on ballot envelopes. These bar codes can be tracked by the U.S. Postal Service, which scans the code and then sends the ballot’s status to either the state/local election official or the voter directly.

Only two states, Mississippi and Wyoming, don’t have state-wide ballot tracking. The remaining forty-eight states, as well as the District of Columbia, permit voters to track their ballot’s progress.

Security of Ballot Tracking

Ballot tracking is secure. The votes themselves aren’t transmitted through trackers, just the movements of ballots from point A to point B. Watching the process can bolster faith in the electoral process, precisely because you can see your ballot’s movement in real-time. Indeed, significant majorities of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats all reported that signing up for ballot tracking notifications enhanced their confidence in the electoral process.

So, first, follow your secretary of state’s rules on voter registration! And then submit your absentee ballot application to your board of elections, if you haven’t already. Mail in your completed ballot, and keep on tracking!

Ballot Curing

Some jurisdictions, will notify you if there’s a problem with your ballot. For example, if you forgot to sign  your ballot envelope or if your signature doesn’t quite match up with what the elections office has on file, an official will notify you so that you can “cure” your ballot and have it counted.

Shouldn't We All Just Stand in Line?

Some people like doing things the way they’ve always been done, and some get a jolt of excitement going to the polling place to stand with fellow Americans to make decisions that affect us all. But one of the best things about democracy is choice.

Absentee voting provides voters with an option so they can perform their civic duty without compromising other personal responsibilities. Since absentee voting is implemented safely and securely, there’s no downside to offering this additional option. Plus, elections administrators can serve voters in a more manageable manner, over days and weeks, instead of handling everything on the same day. It’s a win-win for voters and administrators.

What about my “I Voted” sticker?

Everyone wants their “I voted!” sticker! And you don’t necessarily have to cast a ballot in-person to get one. Many jurisdictions send them in the mail alongside your absentee ballot. So wear it with pride as you walk your completed ballot to the mailbox, or drop-box, election office!

US Vote offers voters online “I Voted” stickers, which serve as excellent social media icons as well. After you’ve cast your ballot, visit the US Vote Voter Rewards page and choose the badge that best suits you. Thank you for voting!