Americans have been debating the most efficient and secure way to vote for most of our history, dating back to the Civil War. However, the vast majority of registered voters still associate Election Day with physically heading to the nearest polling place. The unprecedented public health circumstances of 2020 have reopened the conversation about alternate voting methods; most progressives agree that proposed vote-by-mail policy changes will make democracy more accessible and increase voter turnout.
Voting by mail is sometimes called “absentee voting”; while the two terms are distinct in certain states, they are generally used interchangeably to mean casting a ballot by mail without having to be physically present on Election Day. While studies have not conclusively proven that vote-by-mail increases voter turnout, the handful of states with permanent vote-by-mail systems consistently produce the best turnout rates of any states in the U.S. Vote-by-mail does not increase voter fraud, though the President has made numerous statements to the contrary.
The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked unprecedented urgency to expand vote-by-mail availability nationwide. Those who have quarantined and practiced social distancing for months should not risk their health and the broader public health to stand in line at the polls when we have a perfectly reasonable, safe alternative to voting. Thankfully, voters in many states will have increased access to vote-by-mail this November.
Vote-by-mail policies vary by state, and the status of vote-by-mail is rapidly evolving as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses. It is difficult to monitor all of these vote-by-mail changes, and many voters are confused about how they’ll vote this November. The most important thing to know is that every voter should check their state’s website to check for the latest news regarding vote-by-mail in the general election. For high-level information, though, here are the four current statuses of vote-by-mail across the United States:
- Permanent automatic vote-by-mail: Five states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington) implemented statewide vote-by-mail long before the COVID pandemic. Voters in these states will experience the same election circumstances as any other year: ballots will automatically be mailed to their homes in the weeks before Election Day, no action needed.
- Automatic vote-by-mail for 2020 only: For November’s general election, Governor Gavin Newsom of California was the first governor to pledge that all registered voters in the state will receive mail-in ballots automatically. Delaware also passed a universal vote-by-mail law this year, so Delaware voters can also expect a ballot in their inbox in the weeks before Election Day.
- Vote-by-mail by request allowed in 2020: The majority of states have passed recent legislation to allow voters to request absentee ballots given the extenuating circumstances in 2020. 37 states plus the District of Columbia allow voters to request a vote-by-mail ballot if they are concerned about voting in-person due to COVID-19; requests can be made via either an online form or a mail-in paper form. Note, though, that these states may soon amend their policies and make vote-by-mail automatic; voters should check their Secretary of State’s website frequently to get the latest updates.
- No vote-by-mail yet: As of this writing, 6 states (Connecticut, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Texas) have not passed legislation to allow voting by mail for the November election. Voters in these states may be required to vote in-person on Election Day in these states. However, as national pressure to allow vote-by-mail continues to mount, these states may change their policies over the next several months.
Unfortunately, these regulations are complicated and vary dramatically from state to state. If you are concerned about ensuring widespread access to the ballot this November, call your Senators to endorse the HEROES Act: it would dedicate almost $4 billion to expanding vote-by-mail access and would mandate other measures to ensure that voting is safe this year.
Continue to monitor your state’s vote-by-mail status, and help fight to broaden healthy voting access nationwide. This is a high-stakes election, and we can’t afford to leave voters on the sidelines.