It’s 2020, so naturally, the mail has become politicized. Specifically, the president has insisted the push to make it easier to vote by mail during the pandemic is an attempt to fix the election because doing so is prone to fraud—a claim for which there is no actual evidence. The good news is that states are largely ignoring this: 46 states now offer every eligible voter the option to mail in their ballot, according to the Open Source Election Technology Institute, a nonprofit that researches election technology. Here’s what you need to know about voting by mail in a year facing both a contentious presidential election and a global pandemic.
Before getting into the nitty gritty, first you’re going to want to make sure you’re actually registered to vote. Confirming this won’t take more than a few minutes, and here’s how to do it. If you find that you’re not registered to vote, here’s exactly what you need to do to fix that—including options for registering online, by mail and in person.
Next, check on your state’s absentee voting laws. Thanks to new legislation, court cases and COVID-19, state-level policies are constantly evolving. The easiest way to get yourself up to speed is to Google “[your state] absentee voting.” For example, this is what comes up when I perform that search for New York state. The information on state boards of election sites tends to be up-to-date and come with specific instructions about what you need to do to request a vote-by-mail ballot.
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- Get your ballot in as soon as you can to ensure/confirm it is counted and to give county election boards plenty of time to ready the ballot count.
- Be patient when it comes to election night results. For example, in Pennsylvania, counting vote-by-mail ballots can start at 7 a.m. on election day. While it’s technically possible to get the results that night, don’t expect them to come in early.
Voting by mail: Regulations by state
Given all the recent updates to states’ rules about voting by mail, your first port of call should still be your state’s board of elections website. But for a quick overview, here are the Open Source Election Technology Institute’s latest findings:
- Though technically all 50 states and the District of Columbia offer the option of voting by mail, four states (Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas) require voters to have an “excuse” for doing so. The other 46 states have made the option available to all voters.
- If you live or vote in Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee or Texas, this chart from the National Conference of State Legislatures lists all the acceptable “excuses” for requesting an absentee ballot. They each include being out of the county on Election Day, as well as having an illness or disability. A recent decision by the Texas Supreme Court determined that a lack of immunity to COVID-19 is not a valid excuse for requesting to vote by mail.
- Previously, 12 other states required an “excuse” for voting by mail, but have eased restrictions thanks to COVID-19. These are: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina and West Virginia.
- Currently, five states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah) conduct all elections entirely by mail.