Be Informed: Absentee Voting – What You Need to Know

The 2020 election is less than 50 days away, and will almost certainly see unprecedented levels of absentee voting due to concerns surrounding COVID-19. This shift raises important questions about how increased absentee voting will impact the election, particularly how it will affect turnout in battleground states and the logistical and legal challenges that could arise—potentially delaying the results of the presidential election and battleground U.S. Senate races for days or weeks.

With that in mind, please find an overview of absentee voting below, including key dates and rules, how states have prepared for an election under pandemic conditions, and the challenges that could arise surrounding absentee ballots on Election Day. 

Background: Vote-by-Mail

Each state has its own rules for mail-in voting that dictate under what circumstances voters are allowed to vote by mail. In five states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah), ballots are automatically mailed to eligible voters, but in-person polling locations are still an option on Election Day. Other states require voters to request mail-in ballots, also called absentee ballots, if voters are unable to physically vote at a polling place or would prefer to vote at home. Some states require voters to have a valid excuse, such as inability to vote in person due to illness, injury, disability, travel, or living arrangements outside of state such as college students or military members and their families.

See your state’s requirements here.

Many voters express enthusiasm for mail-in voting, with some reports indicating the convenience of mail-in voting gives voters the time and ability to learn about all the offices and candidates on their ballot. Voting by mail, however, is not convenient for everyone and can even be exclusionary. Mail delivery is not uniform across the U.S., such as on Native American reservations, which is why even states with all mail voting still have the option to vote in person. Overall, the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research found that voting by mail “increases turnout rates modestly,” but that these turnout rates do not benefit one party over another.

The coronavirus pandemic has reignited debates surrounding vote-by-mail, as there have been questions regarding the safety of in-person voting during the November 2020 election. Some have called for expanded mail-in ballot options since “could prompt further emphasis on social distancing and dramatically lessen turnout.” Pushing too quickly for an all-mail system that does not guarantee enough in-person polling sites could also be risky, says David Becker of the Center for Election Innovation & Research.

A sharp reduction in polling places could lead to longer lines for voters and administrative headaches for election officials. This has already been the case as local and state election boards have closed over 1500 polling places since 2014. A large shift to vote-by-mail “requires planning, training, procurement of new technology and education of the electorate… Printing and secure storage of huge increases in paper ballots, postage, secure drop-box locations and additional ballot scanners all must be considered.” Expanding access to vote by mail while still ensuring there are enough polling stations to accommodate in-person voters will give all Americans voting options. Lawmakers on the state and federal level have recently taken actions to address voting concerns during a pandemic.

The Wall Street Journal dives deeper into the vote-by-mail debate (6 min video).


As it currently stands, at least a portion of voters in every state will have the option of casting their ballots through the mail. However, there are important distinctions to draw between the states:

  • There are nine states that will conduct vote-by-mail elections, where every registered and active voter will be mailed a ballot ahead of the election.
  • In six states, voters must provide an excuse beyond the coronavirus to vote absentee.
  • There are 35 states where voters will be able to request an absentee ballot without providing an excuse or will be able to cite concerns about COVID-19 as an excuse to vote absentee. Almost every presidential and Senate battleground state falls into this category of absentee voting. At least 11 of these—including Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin— have sent or will send absentee ballot applications to all or most voters, a practice that tended to boost turnout in the primaries.
FiveThirtyEight, “How To Vote In The 2020 Election.”

While 2020 will likely see a record spike in absentee voting, the practice had been on the rise in elections before the pandemic, and in some states absentee voters already represent a significant portion of the electorate. These past voting habits could have a significant impact on each state’s preparedness for the influx of absentee ballots and ability to execute an election amid the pandemic.

States that previously had high rates of absentee voting in 2016—like Arizona and Florida—are more likely to have foundational infrastructure in place, while states that were used to heavy in-person voting have had to rapidly adjust their election systems. In Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, roughly five percent of each state’s votes were cast by absentee ballots in 2016. While some of these states were able to stress-test their election infrastructure during their primary elections earlier this year, many experienced glitches, particularly in urban areas like Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee. Many of the problems surrounded mail delivery—either ballots never reached voters who requested them or ballots arrived too late for voters to return before the deadline—contributing to long lines at in-person polling locations. Meanwhile, states like North Carolina, which held its primary in early March before the outbreak of the virus, will be handling the increased absentee ballot load for the first time this fall.

There is not enough data to assess how the shift to increased absentee voting will specifically impact turnout among different political parties and demographics in individual battleground states. That said, recent primaries suggest that the shift to absentee voting, especially in states that took steps to encourage it, could contribute to increased overall turnout. In Iowa’s June primary, after the secretary of state’s office sent absentee ballot applications to active voters, the state saw both record primary turnout and record levels of absentee voting. Out of roughly 530,000 total votes, more than 420,000 votes were cast via absentee ballot—a 730 percent increase in absentee voting from the state’s 2018 primary and a 1,000 percent rise from the 2016 primary.

Potential Litigation Increase

There are more steps involved in delivering, processing, and counting absentee ballots than in-person voting, and more room for error. With a number of key states considering extending the deadlines for voters to return absentee ballots to election officials, as well as the time it takes to process and count absentee ballots, it is possible that many states likely will not be able to call winners in close races by the evening of November 3. Beyond these logistical questions, many have anticipated numerous legal challenges to how absentee ballots are counted that could affect the outcome of competitive races, particularly in the Senate. The shift to absentee voting has already led to an uptick in pre-election litigation challenging states’ election laws, with the Republican National Committee investing $20 million into its legal budget to combat Democratic efforts and more than 190 election-related lawsuits filed across 43 states.

The primaries provided many battleground states with opportunities to test their election systems before November and prepare for a shift to higher levels of absentee voting. However, the electorate will be much larger for the general election, multiplying the challenges that states face in delivering, processing, and counting a massive wave of absentee ballots. It is unknown how smoothly the process will play out on Election Day, especially as major changes to absentee ballot deadlines are still being considered in Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and North Carolina hasn’t yet faced a test of this shift. Barring landslide victories, battleground states could see a spike in challenges during the anticipated drawn-out counting process. While there are many open questions ahead of the election, the surge in absentee voting will undoubtedly impact how and when the U.S. Senate majority and the presidential race are decided.

What Can You Do?

If you know you will not be able to vote in person on election day, you can:

Make an impact in your community: Sign up to be a poll worker today!

Democracy in Action

A Presidential election year always heightens Americans’ focus on voting and democracy. In true 2020 fashion, this year has shaped up to be an even more complex election year with new implications for all of us in ensuring free and fair elections. In a year when polarization seems to be at an all-time high, your voice, and your vote matters.

Explore our Election Series resources to go beyond the headlines on the issues and policy proposals that will impact us all. You’ll also find the resources to fully participate in our democratic process. Whether you’re registering to vote for the first time or diving deeper into the key issues impacting your community, we have the resources you need to interact and assess candidates, understand your ballot, and take the next step as a poll worker to ensure that the election process is administered fairly in accordance with the law.

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