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Is COVID-19 a Valid Reason to Request an Absentee Ballot?

By Maddy Teka, Esq. on June 04, 2020 | Last updated on June 10, 2020

With voters standing close to each other in line and polling workers handling thousands of ballots, in-person voting can be a potential recipe for community transmission of COVID-19. Thus, states are taking different measures to ensure Americans can safely cast a vote during the pandemic. By now, most states have either allowed absentee voting or postponed their primaries.

What Is Absentee Voting?

If you are voting absentee, that means you can vote early or by mail. Although all states have some kind of absentee voting in place, specific rules on who qualifies vary. Make sure to research the laws that apply in your state to know if you are eligible.

States Allow Absentee Voting

All states, in some form, allow voters to vote absentee. Thirty-four states and District of Colombia either conduct their elections primarily through the mail, or they offer absentee voting without requiring voters to provide any type of excuse.

The remaining sixteen states, however, allow you to vote absentee only if you can show valid reasons why you can't vote in person.

Acceptable Excuses to Vote Absentee

States differ on what they would consider as a valid excuse to allow voters to vote absentee. However, some commonly accepted excuses include:

  • Being outside the country at the time of voting, including students living outside the country
  • Serious illness or disability
  • Working during voting hours
  • Jury duty
  • Being incarcerated
  • Religious beliefs

COVID-19: A Valid Reason to Request Absentee Ballot?

Election officials in several states permitted voters to vote absentee in the primaries to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic. For example, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that allows "temporary illness" to include “the potential for the contraction of the COVID-19 virus" for the state's primary election. Other states that have followed suit include DelawareIndiana, and Alabama.

A few states have also extended this rule to apply to the general elections in November. New Hampshire, for instance, issued a memo allowing voters to vote absentee if they fear COVID-19 in the general election. It specifically states:

“If a person is unable to vote in person in the general election because of illness from COVID-19 or who fears that voting in person may expose himself/herself or others to COVID-19 will be deemed to come within the definition of “disability" for purposes of obtaining an absentee ballot."

Michigan also mailed applications to vote by mail to all registered voters to give them the option to vote absentee for the August primary and the November general election.

California became the first state to switch to all-mail voting for the November general election over fears of the health risks of in-person voting.

Concerns Over Absentee Voting

Although absentee voting is one of the best ways to ensure voters' safety as they exercise their civic duty, it also has its drawbacks. Some challenges to shifting entirely to absentee voting may include:

  • Potential for increased risk of fraud
  • Cost to set up
  • Possibilities that ballots may be lost at some stage of the process

COVID-19 and the General Election

The general election is approaching, and COVID-19 still remains rampant in the community, with cases dangerously increasing over time. State officials are considering multiple mitigation strategies that would ensure safe elections while controlling the spread of the virus.

Delaying or even canceling the election is highly unlikely as it would likely require action by Congress and raise constitutional issues. The next best thing states have to consider may be to push for absentee voting.

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