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What Are Absentee Ballots and How Do They Work?

Absentee ballots are ballots mailed or delivered to voters prior to Election Day. Voters can mail these ballots back, or even bring them to election authorities, earlier than Election Day. Absentee ballots are just like regular ballots that you would find at the polls on Election Day. They contain all the candidates and issues that will be voted on.

Why Would Someone Vote Absentee?

There are a lot of reasons why a voter may find it difficult to get to the polls to vote on Election Day, including:

  • It's a work day and it may be hard for the voter to get away from work for the amount of time it could take to wait in line at the polls.
  • The voter may be ill or elderly or unable to drive so getting to the polls and standing in line may be difficult.
  • The voter may be out of town or out of the country at the time (such as active duty military members)

For these and other reasons, voters may have the option of voting by absentee ballot. In fact, in some states, you don't have to have a reason to request an absentee ballot.

How Do You Apply for an Absentee Ballot?

Some people think they can get an absentee ballot at the post office because they can find tax forms at the post office. That is not the case. Unless your state is one of the states in which all elections are done by mail, you must fill out a form to request an absentee ballot from the correct election authorities in your state.

You can find your state's rules — and the link to get an absentee ballot — in your state's voting guide.

If you are in the military, or part of a military family stationed overseas, see the Overseas Vote Foundation for information about requesting an absentee ballot. The same website provides information for U.S. citizens living and working overseas.

Do You Need a Reason to Vote Absentee?

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia allow anyone to vote absentee. You only need to request an absentee ballot. You do not need to provide a reason.

Nineteen states require that you provide an excuse/reason for seeking to vote by absentee ballot.

How Do Absentee Ballots Work?

Your first step in voting by absentee ballot is to complete the application form to receive an absentee ballot (if you fit the criteria of your state). In some states, you can complete the form online. In other states, you can mail, fax, email, or drop off the application with election officials.

  • You will need to request an absentee ballot for each election when you wish to use one unless you live in a state that has a permanent absentee ballot list, or a state that only uses mail-in ballots (Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Hawaii (2020) and Utah (2020)).
  • Six states allow voters to be put on a permanent absentee ballot list at the voter's request, without needing an excuse. In Arizona, California, Hawaii, Montana, New Jersey, and Utah, as well as the District of Columbia, you can request to be added to the list and you will receive all your ballots by mail.
  • Eleven states allow voters to be put on a permanent absentee ballot list if they request it and have a permanent disability. Three states allow seniors to request to be put on a permanent absentee ballot list. In five states, if you are on the list you will automatically receive an application before the election, which you will have to return in order to receive an absentee ballot.
  • See the National Conference of State Legislatures to learn about your state's requirements.

Once you have requested an absentee ballot, you will receive (in the mail at your home address) an official absentee ballot, a smaller envelop marked Official Absentee Ballot, and a larger envelop that you must sign and send back.

It is very important that you follow the instructions on the return envelope, or your ballot may be rejected by election officials. You will need to sign an oath and provide your name and signature, home address, and the year you were born.

Will My Absentee Vote Get Counted?

An absentee ballot “counts" the same as a regular ballot cast at the polling site.

That said, absentee ballots are rejected at a higher rate than regular ballots, and may go uncounted as they did in a pivotal House of Delegates race in Virginia in 2017. Delays in mail delivery meant that 55 votes did not arrive in time to be counted in a very close race.

Absentee ballots are more likely to be challenged by election officials, by party representatives assigned to watch the election, or in some states by any registered voter who wants to question someone's right to vote. Learn more about state voter challenge laws.

The State of Georgia faced two lawsuits in 2018 regarding absentee ballot rejections. Absentee ballots were being rejected because election officials (who are not trained handwriting analysts) said the signatures on the envelops did not closely enough match the signature on file for the voter.

Ballots were also often rejected because of omissions on the return envelope, such as the failure to include a birth date. The lawsuits noted that rejection rates in some counties were higher than others and that the ballots of minority voters were being rejected at a disproportionately higher rate.

When Do I Need to Request an Absentee Ballot?

Every state has different deadlines for when you need to request an absentee ballot, ranging from 21 days in Rhode Island to Election Day in Hawaii, California, and Colorado. See Vote.org for absentee ballot requests and return deadlines.

When Are Absentee Ballots Due?

For most states, your ballot must be received no later than Election Day.

  • The following states accept absentee ballots that are postmarked on Election Day but delivered after Election Day: Alaska, California, Iowa, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah, Washington, West Virginia.
  • The following states require that absentee ballots be returned BEFORE Election Day: Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania.

You may return your absentee ballot by mail, or deliver it by hand, or in some cases, you may have someone deliver your ballot for you. Be sure you know the rules for ballot delivery by another.

Absentee Ballots Are Increasingly Popular but Pose Risks

The use of absentee ballots has grown tremendously in recent years. Millions of people enjoy the convenience of voting by mail. But absentee ballots are more likely to be the subject of fraud and if absentee voters aren't careful, their vote may not be counted.

Be sure you know the rules and regulations in your state for absentee voting. If your application for absentee voting has been unfairly rejected, or you have a concern about whether your vote was counted, or about possible electoral fraud, talk to an election law attorney in your area.

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