With social distancing standards making in-person voting difficult, voting by mail is going to play a much larger role in November’s election. But it’s not without complexity.
Voting rules are controlled by state governments, which means those rules will vary across the country. Companies, associations and nonprofits that plan to register and mobilize voters will need to understand the landscape.
“There is no problem encouraging your audience to vote by mail,” said Jason Langsner, senior product manager at Phone2Action. “Just make sure you know that people are operating under slightly different rules across the country. If you are addressing an audience in a specific state, it may help to know the process there.”
Thankfully, there is a simple framework you can use to understand how mail-in voting will be conducted in states across the country. To learn more, keep reading.
How to Understand State Rules
Mail-in voting is a form of absentee voting, which allows people to vote without visiting a polling place to mark a ballot. It is nothing new. In fact, it has existed in the United States since the Civil War.
At one time, mail-in voting was intended for people who were serving in the military, sick, traveling or otherwise unable to vote in person. Today, states are making it easier to vote by mail as a practical way to vote during the pandemic.
To understand the nation’s patchwork of rules, consider the following:
Additionally certain states require that the mailed in ballot be received on or before Election Day while other states permit ballots to be postmarked on Election Day. With new mail issues arising, many election experts are recommending that voters send in or drop off their mail ballots as early as possible. Phone2Action itself is a founding partner of Vote Early Day on Saturday, October 24, to promote this idea with our employees and partners.
The bottom line: if you can figure out 1) whether a state requires voters to request a mail-in ballot; 2) if that state requires an excuse to obtain a mail-in ballot; 3) what the acceptable excuses are; and 4) when/how to return that ballot, you can determine the basic rules that govern mail-in voting in any state.
One more thing to be aware of is that some states require witnesses or a notary to cast a mail-in ballot, and some require voters to provide a copy of a photo ID.
Lists of States and the Rules in Place
There are many places you can look to for information on state voting rules. One government resource is USA.gov, which has a search page that can connect you with state information. One nonprofit resource is Headcount, which works to register voters. They have a well-maintained page of state-by-state information.
A Brookings Institution study in July provided detailed information, with downloadable data.
While the rules in some states are still changing, here is a list presented by The Washington Post on July 27 that shows how states are treating mail-in voting.
- States that mail out ballots: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Washington DC.
- States that mail out applications for mail-in ballots: Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.
- States that require a request, but do not require an excuse (or that accept COVID as an excuse), to obtain a mail-in ballot: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.
- States that require a request and an approved excuse to obtain a mail-in ballot: Connecticut, New York, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.
Because the situation is fluid in some states, the best course of action if you need up-to-the-minute rules is to reach out to the state or local election office and obtain information directly. Phone2Action’s Election Center 2020 tool does this easily. It can connect you—and your audience—to correct, reliable and official information.
What Will Mail-in Voting Mean?
A dramatic increase in mail-in voting is likely to have an effect on turnout, though the impact is still unclear. Similarly, it could delay the results of the Nov. 3 election, which will determine control of the White House, Congress and thousands of state offices. But that is by no means a certainty.
There are some who allege vote-by-mail will increase fraud. Thus far, however, there is little evidence to support that claim. A Washington Post analysis showed that there were only 372 cases of potential fraud out of roughly 14.6 million mail-in ballots cast in the last two federal elections.
Remember, mail-in voting is extremely common. In the 2018 midterm elections, voters in two states (Oregon and Washington) cast all ballots by mail, according to the Post. In five more states (Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Utah) more than 60 percent of voters cast ballots by mail.
However, that does not mean that all states are completely ready for a vote-by -mail system. The Brookings Institution study graded the states, showing that 10—fully a fifth of the country—received a D or worse. Alabama got an F.
Yet, despite all that, the report concluded that, “The safest and most secure way to vote in a pandemic is vote-by-mail.”
“During the 2020 primaries, coronavirus severely disrupted elections,” the report said. “State voting systems were overwhelmed by long lines, an influx of absentee ballot requests, and technology issues.”
Subscribe for Updates
Get the latest civic engagement trends, best practices, and news, right in your inbox.