Absentee Voting Laws

Absentee voting is casting a ballot in an election by mail or, in some states, by dropping it off at an authorized ballot collection location. When you vote with an absentee ballot, you vote before the official election day. You use a government-approved absentee ballot provided by your state. Learn about absentee voting, who is eligible, how to register, and more. 

Why Does the U.S. Allow Absentee Voting?

In a representative democracy, The People exercise their power of self-governance through their elected representatives. Voter participation is essential for a healthy democracy.

Absentee voting ensures that people can exercise their right to vote even if they are away from home for military duty or foreign service or business, or if they were too ill or disabled to go to their polling place.

When Did Absentee Voting Start in the U.S.?

In the 1980s, people concerned about democracy noticed that U.S. voter turnout rates were significantly lower than the voting rates in other established democracies. Some states began to relax their voting requirements to encourage more people to vote. Increasing access to voting by absentee ballot was one strategy.

More people do now vote by absentee ballot. According to the MIT Election Data Science Lab, absentee voting increased from 7.5% in 1992 to 21.1% in 2016.

Who Is Eligible to Vote by Absentee Ballot?

Voter eligibility varies by state (see below). Here are the federal voting requirements:

  • You must be a U.S. citizen, 18 years of age or older
  • You must be legally allowed to vote in your state (for example, if your state has a law that prevents people in prison for a felony conviction from voting, those individuals would not be eligible to vote by absentee ballot in a federal election)
  • You must be registered to vote in your state, or with the Federal Postcard Application

You can learn more about federal absentee voting requirements at USA.gov 's page on absentee voting.

State Absentee Voting Laws

States have considerable leeway to define who is allowed to participate in absentee voting.

Three states conduct their elections by mail. In Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, every eligible voter receives a ballot by mail. A voter only needs to apply for an absentee ballot if they need a ballot mailed somewhere other than a home address.

Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow no-excuse absentee voting. A voter simply has to request an absentee ballot.

Twenty-one states require would-be absentee voters to provide an excuse for why they want to vote by absentee ballot. Examples of valid excuses include:

  • You have a specific and reasonable expectation that you will be absent from the county on Election Day during the entire 12 hours the polls are open (Indiana)
  • You cannot get to your assigned polling station due to a physical disability (Massachusetts)
  • You are 65 or older (Mississippi)
  • You are an election official at a poll other than your own (Alabama)
  • Your religious tenets forbid secular activity on Election Day (Connecticut)
  • Your business prevents you from coming to the polls (including work caring for an ill or disabled family member) (Delaware)
  • You are incarcerated but not serving time for a felony (Louisiana)
  • You are a student who lives outside your home county (Kentucky)

Register for Absentee Voting

If you would like to register for absentee voting, please see the resources below for further information and to apply to receive a ballot.

  • U.S. citizen eligible to vote: You can apply for an absentee ballot from your state's Secretary of State office (find them on USA.gov).
  • U.S. citizen serving in the military: If you are serving in the military, or you are a military family member, see the Federal Voting Assistance Program website, or the Overseas Vote Foundation.
  • U.S. citizen living abroad: If you are living abroad and do not have a home in the U.S., you can use the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) to apply for an absentee ballot. You can also use the Overseas Vote Foundation to apply for a ballot.
  • U.S. citizen born abroad: If you have never lived in the U.S., you may or may not be eligible to vote by absentee ballot. It will depend upon the laws of the state in which your parents previously lived. See the Federal Voting Assistance Program website for information about that state's laws.

Legal Challenges With Absentee Voting

There are times when an absentee ballot is challenged by an election official as invalid because they suspect it is not coming from the eligible voter. If you have experienced a problem using an absentee ballot, contact a civil rights lawyer in your state for legal help.

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