What Are Absentee Ballots, and How Do They Work?

Electoral election officials mail or deliver absentee ballots to voters before Election Day. Voters mail these ballots back or return to election authorities before Election Day.

Absentee ballots are like regular ballots at the polling place on Election Day. They contain all the candidates and issues everyone else will vote on.

Why Would Someone Vote Absentee?

There are many reasons voters have difficulty with in-person voting at the polling place on Election Day. Some of these include:

  • It's a work day, and it may be hard for the voter to get away from work for the time it could take to wait in line at the polls.
  • Accessibility may be an issue, especially for sick or elderly voters. Some people do not drive and can't get to the polling place. Others may have a hard time standing in line.
  • The voter may be out of town, specifically overseas voters (such as active-duty military personnel).

For these and other reasons, voters can vote by absentee ballot. In the U.S., 28 states do not require a reason to request an absentee ballot. Other states automatically send absentee ballot applications to voters.

These states include:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Hawaii
  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • District of Columbia

Of course, you can still vote in person in these states.

How Do You Apply for an Absentee Ballot?

Some assume they can get an absentee ballot at the post office because these offices provide tax forms. That is not the case. Unless your state conducts mail voting, you must fill out an absentee ballot application.

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 has information for U.S. citizens living and working overseas.

Do You Need a Reason to Vote Absentee?

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia allow anyone to vote absentee. You only need to request an absentee ballot. You don't need to give a reason.

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

If you have questions, you can ask someone at your local voter registration office or board of elections. This is especially true for local elections, county elections, and state elections.

How Do Absentee Ballots Work?

Your first step in voting by absentee ballot is to complete the application for an absentee ballot. In some states, you can complete the form online. You can mail, fax, email, or drop off the application with election officials in other states.

  • You must request an absentee ballot for each election you wish to vote in. The exception is if you live in a state with a permanent absentee ballot list or one using mail-in ballots (Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Hawaii, and Utah).
  • Six states allow election officials to put voters on a permanent absentee ballot list without an excuse. These include Arizona, California, Hawaii, Montana, New Jersey, Utah, and the District of Columbia.
  • Eleven states allow voters to go on a permanent absentee ballot list if they request it and have a permanent disability. These states include the following:
    • Alabama
    • Connecticut
    • Delaware
    • Illinois
    • Kansas
    • Louisiana ***
    • Maine ***
    • Mississippi
    • New York
    • Tennessee
    • West Virginia
    • Wisconsin ***

*** These states only allow seniors to request to go on a permanent absentee ballot list.

If you are on the list in five states, you will automatically get an application before the election. You must return this form to get an absentee ballot.

See the National Conference of State Legislatures to learn about your state's requirements.

Once you have requested one, you will get an official absentee ballot. You must sign it and send it back.

Follow the instructions on the return envelope, or election officials may reject your ballot. You must sign an affidavit and provide your name, signature, home address, and birth year.

Will My Absentee Vote Count?

Election officials treat absentee ballots the same as a regular ballot.

Unfortunately, absentee ballots have a much higher rejection rate than regular ballots. Election officials, poll watchers, or registered voters may be more likely to challenge absentee ballots.

Georgia faced two lawsuits in 2018 on absentee ballot rejections. Election officials rejected some absentee ballots, claiming the signatures on the envelopes did not match the signature on file for the voter.

Officials also rejected ballots because of omissions on the return envelope. For example, some voters forgot to include their date of birth. Plaintiffs in the lawsuits claim rejection rates in some counties were higher than in others and that officials rejected the ballots of minority voters at a disproportionately high rate.

When Do I Need to Request an Absentee Ballot?

Every state has different deadlines for when you must request an absentee ballot. Some states have 21 days, such as Rhode Island, Hawaii, California, and Colorado.

When Are Absentee Ballots Due?

In most states, election offices must receive absentee ballots by Election Day.

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

Some states have particular rules about when absentee ballots are due. For example, Oklahoma law requires that you return your ballot at least 15 days before an election.

You may return your absentee ballot by mail or deliver it by hand. You may also place your ballot in a drop box. In some cases, you may have someone deliver your ballot for you. Be sure you know the rules for ballot delivery by another. In South Carolina, for instance, you can't deliver another voter's absentee ballot.

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. If absentee voters aren't careful, their votes may not count.

Be sure you know the rules and regulations in your state for absentee voting. If you believe election officials have unfairly rejected your application for absentee voting or worry that officials didn't count your vote, talk to an election law attorney in your area.

You Don't Have To Solve This on Your Own — Get a Lawyer's Help

Meeting with a voting rights lawyer can help you understand your options and protect your rights.

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