Ballots - absentee and mail-in: Let's clear up any confusion - What you need to know to help other voters understand what they can do

by Tom Cloyd - 4 min. read - (reviewed 2020-09-15: 1820 PDT)

Absentee ballot counting overseas

Image credit: U.S. Army

Balloting by mail used to be a rare oddity, but it is no longer. In some states it is the only option. Still, needless confusion exists about these two kinds of ballots. Let’s quickly fix this problem.

On this page…

Mailed-in ballots are an old idea in the USA, but are now more common than ever,1 and will be crucially important in the November 2020 election.

Mailing in or dropping off ballots has been happening in the US for over one hundred years. This year, 20 states have expanded or eased access to mail-in ballots,1 with 76% of the voting public now eligible to vote by mail.2 But in some states a mail-in ballot can only be obtained for certain reasons.

“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.”2

  • Nine states, including Washington state, Utah, California, and Nevada, mail ballots directly to their voters.
  • Thirty-four now allow absentee (i.e., mail-in) ballots for all voters who request them - no reason required.
  • Seven states, including South Carolina, Texas, and New York, require an explanation for requesting a mail-in ballot.2

Formerly, “absentee ballots” were for people not able to physically show up at a polling place on election day, like those in the military or living or traveling abroad. This has become a trivial distinction, and increasing numbers of people vote by mail for reasons of convenience or economy. Unfortunately President Trump has tried to link mail-in ballots with fraud, as if they are fundamentally different from absentee ballots (which he has referred to as “safe”). But such ballots are widely used by our overseas military forces. They are not different from any other mail-in ballot. And…“all ballots delivered to voters by mail are verified before they are counted.”3

If you are not aware of the ballot return options in your state, learn them well in advance (although they are usually made clear in the material sent with your mail-in ballot).

Some states require only a postmark by election day, while others require receipt of the ballot itself by election day - a crucial difference. Some states have accessible secure drop-off boxes for ballots, making ballot return easy and reliable.

In 23 states this fall, a total of over half a million mail-in ballots were rejected. In some battleground states, this rate of rejection could make a difference in election outcome.1

The Washington Post suggests 6 steps you can take to make sure your mail-in ballot is counted:4

  1. Request your ballot early, if it is not mailed to you automatically.
  2. Read the instructions carefully, once you have your ballot. For several reasons, marking and returning a mailing ballot is more complicated than voting at a polling place. If you are confused about anything, contact local election officials to resolve the problem.
  3. If you are required to sign the ballot or ballot envelope, which is a common practice, be careful if you have changed how your sign your name over time. Election officials will be looking for the signature on your original voter registration materials when validating your ballot.
  4. Be careful with your ballot. There should be no stains, tears, or stray marks. If a certain color ink is asked for, use only that color. Some states use a double envelope system for returning the ballot - do exactly what you are asked to do. If you mess up any of this process, contact local election officials to find out how to resolve the problem.
  5. Return the ballot as soon as possible. Your state may offer alternatives to using the mails to do this. Be aware of the kind of deadline your state has - postmark by election day or receipt by election office by election day.
  6. Get information about this whole process in your state ONLY from state election officials. Anyone else is unreliable and may be merely passing along to you what they heard at the local bar!

To perpetrate fraud large enough to alter a national election would be an extraordinarily difficult undertaking, essentially impossible in any realistic scenario. 2

Voter registration databases allow checking that a person is allowed to vote. Most states require signed ballot return envelopes so that the signature may be checked against existing records to validate a ballot. Washington state has a barcode system that allows voters to track returned ballots as they are processed.2

Voter fraud reports typically report raw numbers, devoid of context or comparison to fraud rates of non-mail-in ballots5, or they mislead readers by portraying ballots not returned (non-voters) as “missing”.6 Without proper contest, it is easy to fan hysteria about mail-in ballots , but studies have failed to find significant voter fraud,7 and a voter fraud commission President Trump charged with investigating the problem was quickly shut down in January of 2018 when no real problems were found.8

Superb online resources exist for quickly clarifying any voter’s situation. We have summarized these resources in our recently published Voter information article.

  1. Viebeck, E. (2020-08-23). More than 500,000 mail ballots were rejected in the primaries. That could make the difference in battleground states this fall. Washington Post. Retrieved from^ ^2 ^3

  2. Yuhas, A. (2020-09-09). How Mail-In Voting Works. New York Times. Retrieved from^ ^2 ^3 ^4 ^5

  3. Lee, M.Y.H. (2020-08-18). What’s the difference between absentee and mail-in voting? Washington Post. Retrieved 2020-09-15 from^

  4. Viebeck, E. (2020-08-25). How to prevent your mail ballot from being rejected. Washington Post. Retrieved from^

  5. von Spakovsky, H.A. (2020-08-03). The Risks of Mail-In Voting. The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved from^

  6. Hemingwa, M. (2020-04-24). 28 Million Mail-In Ballots Went Missing in Last Four Elections. Real Clear Politics. Retrieved from^

  7. Wines, M. (2016-12-18). All This Talk of Voter Fraud? Across U.S., Officials Found Next to None. New York Times. Retrieved from^

  8. Tackett, M., & Wines, M. (2018-01-03). Trump Disbands Commission on Voter Fraud. New York Times. Retrieved from^


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