In the US, the classic image of election day is of people standing in line to cast a ballot inside a voting booth. But this image is changing, particularly with the increase in the use of absentee and mail-in ballots.
With this change, there is a lot of confusion—and misinformation—around these methods, which vary widely state by state. What’s more, some people use these terms interchangeably, others mean different things by them, and yet others employ different words altogether.
Yes, it’s complicated. Which is why we’ve compiled this primer for you on absentee ballots vs. mail-in ballots. Please note: use this article for general information, but consult your local election officials for when and how you may vote. To get started, visit usa.gov and vote.gov.
What is an absentee ballot?
Let’s start with some election basics. Normally, most US voters cast their ballots in person in a polling booth at a polling place/station based on where they are registered to vote. A ballot is the physical form (or electronic voting machine equivalent) that a voter fills out; it lists the candidates, issues, and so on that a person votes on.
An absentee ballot is a ballot used to cast an absentee vote, which is submitted, usually by mail, by a voter known as an absentee. Absentee, here, refers to a person who can’t physically be present at a voting center on Election Day. Absentee voting in the US goes back to the Civil War era, and every state allows this kind of voting in some form. In fact, federal law, requires ballots be sent to military and overseas voters for federal elections.
To get an absentee ballot, a registered voter must request one through their state government, which accepts or rejects the application. When someone is approved to vote absentee, election officials mail the voter an absentee ballot, which they complete and sign, and return by mail or, under certain circumstances, fax. Officials can reject absentee ballots if they are improperly filled out, and voters face steep penalties if they falsify any information.
All states, again, send absentee ballots to military and overseas voters who request them. In many states, an absentee ballot is the only form of voting through the mail that is allowed by law, and the voter is required to give a reason why they can’t go to a voting location on Election Day. Exact rules vary, but qualifying reasons may include the following:
- Being out of the county where they are registered to vote
- Being a student living outside of the county
- Having an illness or disability
- Working or being on jury duty during voting hours
- Serving as an election worker or poll watcher
- Having religious beliefs or practices that prevent them from going to a voting center
- Being in prison but still able to vote
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What is a no-excuse absentee ballot?
Many states use what’s sometimes called a no-excuse absentee ballot. This is similar to the strict absentee ballot previously noted above, but a registered voter doesn’t have to give a reason why they can’t be at their polling location on Election Day. However, the states themselves may simply call this ballot an absentee ballot.
The lexical wrinkles don’t stop there! Some of these states (e.g., Pennsylvania) may refer to the no-excuse absentee ballot as a mail-in ballot.
So, what is a mail-in ballot?
A handful of states conduct their elections through a mail-in process that’s often referred to as all-mail voting. Registered voters in these states automatically receive a mail ballot, which is sent to their address before Election Day and mailed back by the voter or deposited at a voting location or secure dropbox by a certain time on Election Day.
In these states, the term absentee ballot can specifically refer to a ballot that is requested by a voter who will be out of the state (e.g., for college, traveling, etc.) at the time of the election, and so can’t receive their ballot at their registered address.
What general mail-in ballots are called varies by state, as you can already tell. In all-mail voting states, the following names may be used:
- advance ballot
- ballots by mail
- by-mail ballot
- mail ballot
- mail-in ballot
- mailed ballot
Absentee ballot vs. mail-in ballot
So, all absentee ballots are sent through the mail (or very occasionally fax), but not all ballots sent through the mail are absentee ballots.
- The term absentee ballot is generally used in every state to refer to a ballot filled out by a voter who cannot, for various reasons, physically make it to a voting location on Election Day.
- The term mail-in ballot is used more broadly to refer to ballots sent through the mail, including in all-mail voting states and some forms of absentee voting.
In popular discussions, some people will use the terms absentee ballot and mail-in ballot to mean the same thing: voting by mail, regardless of why. However, many people will use absentee ballot specifically to refer to a ballot that is mailed when a person can’t vote in person, and use the term mail-in ballot in the context of voting policies that enable all people to vote by mail.
What is ballot harvesting?
Groups and organizations have traditionally collected and turned in individual voters’ completed absentee or mail-in ballots. This practice is known as ballot collecting. It can also be referred to as ballot harvesting, a term most commonly used by critics of the practice. The word harvesting is often seen as intending to imply that the practice results in (or is done as part of an effort to engage in) voter fraud.
In the US, state law governs who is legally able to collect ballots. The term ballot harvesting became the subject of news reports in 2021 when the US Supreme Court upheld a controversial 2016 Arizona law that made collecting and turning in another person’s ballot a felony. Although the law itself uses the term ballot abuse, critics of the practice and Arizona’s attorney general have commonly used the term ballot harvesting when discussing what the law prohibits.
Critics of laws that limit voting and voting rights argue that bans on ballot collection restrict voting rights and further limit access for many groups, including senior citizens, disabled voters, and members of low-income households.
Misinformation about voting by mail
Since we’re here, let’s dispel some myths and misinformation about voting by mail:
- Voting fraud is extremely rare in the US, and voting by mail is no exception. In the past 20 years, over 250,000,000 votes have been cast by mail, and according to data from the Heritage Foundation, there have been only 1,285 proven cases of voter fraud resulting in 1,100 convictions.
- Studies done by such organizations as Stanford University have found that voting by mail does not favor voter share or turnout of either major political party. Expanding access to voting by mail is generally considered great for all voters and their ability to exercise their right to vote.
For more information on how and when you can vote, consult your own state’s elections office website, or use resources like vote.org.
Whether you vote in person or by mail, and regardless of what you call the ballot, vote!
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