Introduction

Quinn is getting ready to vote in the upcoming election but doesn’t want to go to the polling place. While researching alternative options, they learn that voters in their state can request a No-Excuse Absentee ballot, which means their local election office will mail a ballot to them.

Explanation

Voting by mail is becoming increasingly common in the United States and allows people to vote without waiting in long lines at polling stations or missing work or school to vote. Different states have different rules regarding who can vote by mail, but all states allow it in some form. 

The Definition

Voting by mail, also known as postal voting or mail-in voting, is a form of voting where people request a ballot from their local election office, have it mailed to them, and then return it by mail to be counted with the rest of the votes. Voting by mail reduces staff requirements at polling stations, increases voter turnout, and has no partisan bias. While critics argue that there is a greater risk of fraud with voting by mail, various studies have shown no evidence of this claim. 

The History

Voting by mail has a long history in the U.S. The first widespread vote by mail movement took place during the American Civil War when soldiers voted via absentee ballots. The move was controversial at the time, with Democrats warning of widespread fraud risks and a scheme by Republicans to gain a political advantage. However, 150,000 of the one million Union soldiers voted via absentee ballot in the 1864 presidential election. Since then, the U.S. military has continued to have soldiers vote by mail, whether they are stationed in the U.S. or a foreign country. 

In the 1944 presidential election, amid World War II, the military cast 3.2 million votes through absentee ballots. These votes accounted for almost seven percent of the total vote. Since then, voting by mail has become increasingly common. In 2018, mail-in ballots accounted for 26 percent of the total vote.

How It Works

Today, voting by mail has expanded past military personnel and applies to a broad range of people. However, individual states run their elections and can institute different policies that restrict voting by mail. For military personnel and overseas voters, a federal agency that reports to the Department of Defense coordinates voting efforts. 

As of 2020, Washington, Utah, Oregon, Hawaii, and Colorado have almost universal vote by mail elections. They allow all elections to be conducted by mail and send out mail-in ballots to registered voters automatically. Three more states allow counties to conduct elections by mail, ten allow small elections to be conducted by mail, and six permit all-mail elections for certain small jurisdictions.

In states that don’t send ballots out automatically, voters have to request one. After someone has requested and been approved for a mail-in ballot, the local election office sends them a ballot. The voter fills out the ballot, places it inside the provided security envelope to keep their vote private, and places that inside a second envelope. They sign the outside to certify their identity and mail it back. Once it arrives back at the election office, local authorities check the voter’s name to ensure they are registered to vote and are casting a ballot from the address they registered. They then remove the ballot from the outside envelope and wait until Election Day to open the security envelope.

Voting by mail reduces staff requirements at polling stations, increases voter turnout, and has no partisan bias. Additionally, various studies have shown no evidence of increased voter fraud among postal voting. In fact, election officials can be quite strict when it comes to accepting mail-in ballots. In the 2018 election, officials rejected 67,000 ballots because they were suspicious. If voters have been purged from the registration rolls or their signatures on the envelope don’t exactly match the signature on file, their vote may not count. Signature verification is the leading reason officials throw out mail-in ballots, which happens disproportionately to voters of color. 

Mail-in ballots missing the deadline is the second most common reason ballots are thrown out. Another issue is ballots not arriving at a voter’s residence in time for them to vote, which is a process that relies on the United States Postal Service, or the USPS. 

Applying It

Even if you can’t vote yet, you can help ensure that those eligible can vote. Each state has a different process for requesting a mail-in ballot and various rules and regulations to follow, which can seem confusing and complicated. Take the time to learn the process and help others learn it, too. You can also call your representatives and tell them to support measures that increase access to mail-in ballots. You can volunteer in your community to help register people to vote. You can protest against discriminatory voting regulations like purges of the voter registration rolls and unnecessary restrictions to voting by mail.

    Learn More

    1. Parks, Miles. “Why Is Voting By Mail (Suddenly) Controversial? Here’s What You Need To Know.” NPR.Org, 4 June 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/06/04/864899178/why-is-voting-by-mail-suddenly-controversial-heres-what-you-need-to-know. 
    2. Thompson, Daniel M., et al. “Universal Vote-by-Mail Has No Impact on Partisan Turnout or Vote Share.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 117, no. 25, National Academy of Sciences, June 2020, pp. 14052–56. www.pnas.org, doi:10.1073/pnas.2007249117.
    3. Wald-Seitz, Alex. “How Do You Know Voting by Mail Works? The U.S. Military’s Done It since the Civil War.” NBC News, 19 April 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/how-do-you-know-voting-mail-works-u-s-military-n1186926. 
    4. West, Darrell M. How Does Vote-by-Mail Work and Does It Increase Election Fraud? Brookings Institution, 22 June 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/votervital/how-does-vote-by-mail-work-and-does-it-increase-election-fraud/.
    5. Yuhas, Alan. “How Mail-In Voting Works.” The New York Times, 26 Aug. 2020, NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/article/Vote-by-mail.html.

    Think Further

    1. What are some measures that can be taken to avoid unfairly throwing out mail-in votes?
    2. What are the benefits of voting by mail?
    3. What can you do to support mail-in voting?

    Teacher Resources

    Download Lesson Plan
    Download Worksheet
    View On EdPuzzle
    Sign up for our educators newsletter to learn about new content!
    Educators Newsletter