Over the past several weeks, conversations about vote-by-mail systems and how to quickly scale up for the remaining primary election cycle and possibly even the November election have become increasingly urgent. A recent YouGov poll found that 65% of Americans support voting by mail.

As with many areas across the American political and socio economic landscape, COVID-19 has exposed deep fault lines within the U.S. electoral system. Testing federal, state, and local government response and emergency management, the current pandemic moment raises new concerns around voting rights and election integrity.

Vote-by-mail may sound simple, but is actually a term used to describe different methods of voting that use the mail system. This includes states that have an all-mail ballot system in place as well as states that offer the option to vote by mail using an absentee ballot application process. While the current public health crisis warrants adjustments to the traditional heavy reliance on in-person voting, not all vote-by-mail systems currently in practice are the same.

Okay. So what’s the difference between all-mail ballot systems and absentee ballots? They both go through the mail.

All states provide some mechanism for voters to receive a ballot by mail. This ranges from an all-mail ballot system to states where absentee ballots are available to people with a specific reason.

Five states nationwide have an all-mail ballot system in place. Oregon, Washington, Utah, Hawaii, and Colorado all provide every registered voter with a mail-in ballot. These states have an “election period,” not simply a single day. There may still be an option for in-person voting or returning the ballot in person. Several other states permit voting by mail in certain counties or for particular elections.

Absentee ballots are a way of voting outside of a voter’s usual polling place. Voters are required to apply for an absentee ballot for each election in which they intend to vote. States that permit absentee voting are divided by those that require an excuse and states that do not. According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, under normal conditions, one-third of states require an excuse to apply for an absentee ballot. These are usually specific listed reasons such as being overseas or in the military, disability status, or being incarcerated with voting rights still intact. Some states permit special classes of voters to apply for a permanent absentee ballot. In some states, early voting that takes place in-person is considered voting by absentee ballot.

In response to the health concerns posed by COVID-19, states that usually require an excuse are permitting voters to request an absentee ballot without one. Indiana created an absentee ballot application specifically for its postponed primary election. West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner issued guidance permitting all voters to apply for an absentee ballot ahead of the primary.

In Pennsylvania, voters have the option of an absentee ballot process and a vote-by-mail process. Both require an application, but the absentee ballot process requires an application for each separate election and the vote-by-mail process is one application kept on file that must be updated annually.

That’s cool and all, but why does it matter if it all goes through the mail?

It is important to understand the particular process for distributing mail-in ballots because the processes and considerations may differ. State and county election officials that already have a statutory grant of authority to run a vote-by-mail election process could mail out ballots directly to voters.

Absent a clear grant of authority from the respective state legislature, state and county election officials relying on absentee ballots to conduct mail-in ballot elections are generally bound to the rules for absentee ballots. Generally, mail-in absentee ballots require voters to mail in an application request, then wait for the request to be processed and an absentee ballot to be sent out, and then return the ballot. The Election Assistance Commission provides state and county election officials with resource guides on how to plan to increase use of vote-by-mail and guidance for working with the United States Postal Service (USPS). The USPS resource section notes that voters should be told to “assume one week for USPS delivery,” highlighting the potential delay for ballot delivery and receipt, particularly during the current pandemic.

Setting a tight schedule for completion of an election can mean that some voters may not receive their ballots with enough time to return them, or in some cases, voters do not receive their ballots and chance voting in person or not voting at all. Deadlines for requesting absentee ballot applications and returning ballots vary from state to state.

In Wisconsin, election officials are investigating reports of absentee ballots that were never delivered. Some voters in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, did not receive their ballots despite filing a timely request. Among those voters who never received an absentee ballot was State Assembly Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz.  

The acceptable methods for returning an absentee ballot, including who is allowed to handle another person’s absentee ballot, depend on the state. Twenty-seven states permit some form of designated person to handle a voter’s absentee or mail-in ballot. Among those states, 12 states limit who counts as a designated person. Alabama does not allow for anyone, other than the voter, to handle the voter’s absentee ballot.

In addition, some states permit a voter to submit absentee ballots by dropping the ballots off at the county board of elections office or other designated location, rather than mailing the ballots in.

Will increasing the use of voting by mail give one political party an advantage over the other?

Increasing access to voting benefits individuals wanting to cast a ballot and democracy as a whole by having increased participation. Many states have been able to move to a vote-by-mail process, or scaling up an existing process, in order to provide a safe voting experience for all without partisan concerns. But there have been some differences about how vote by mail should be scaled up and what procedural safeguards should be implemented.

For example, Ohio delayed its election and approved a process that relied on scaling up the use of absentee ballots, voting rights advocates objected to the tight timeline for administering an entire election in this manner.  Signed into law at the end of March, House Bill 197 set the Ohio primary election date as April 28. With one month to manage a vote-by-mail process, it is yet to be seen whether Ohio voters had enough time to request, receive, and return the ballot. Other issues raised include not providing pre-paid return mail envelopes.

Also, comments concerning alleged fraud rely on false narratives that are not backed by actual evidence. Focusing on fraud detracts from valid concerns and often does not heed important lessons from states already using an all-mail process. States that have all-mail elections such as Colorado and Oregon have systems in place to maintain election integrity while providing voters easy access to the process.

What else do we need to know?

It may seem like common sense, but increased reliance on mail-in ballots, whether through a vote-by-mail system or using absentee ballots, requires the U.S. Postal Service to handle more mail. Last month, the Election Assistance Commission held a two-part roundtable discussion with state and county election officials about the factors that should be considered when looking to scale up a vote by mail process. In part two, Daniel Bentley, the election mail program manager for the U.S. Postal Service, said that as states look to expand vote-by-mail or scale up use of absentee ballots, election officials should contact the respective area lead or coordinator for mail service “now” to ensure proposed legislation or other adopted changes align with mailing standards and automated processes.

“The postal service again has dedicated teams to support election officials,” said Bentley. “The best advice early engagement is going to be essential…ultimately, we want to enfranchise as many voters as possible as they are using absentee ballots by mail.”

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.