Voting by mail has been the norm in several states for years, but in 2020 it's expected to be a major method of voting (Graphic by COURIER/Denzel Boyd; Shutterstock/CL Shebley).
Voting by mail has been the norm in several states for years, but in 2020 it's expected to be a major method of voting (Graphic by COURIER/Denzel Boyd; Shutterstock/CL Shebley).

Voting by mail will be more popular than ever in the 2020 election. So we’re detailing everything you need to know about how voting by mail works, who can do it, and what you should know before casting your ballot.

This article is part of COURIER’s Your Vote 2020 hub. For more stories from each of the battleground states, along with national reporting, visit the site here.

Voting by mail has become increasingly popular with each election cycle, due to the convenience it offers compared to standing in long lines or juggling personal schedules on Election Day. Voting by mail is a particularly enticing option for the 2020 presidential election, as fears of being around crowds are high and many voters have living situations in flux. 

Data shows that voting by mail is safe and secure, a fact that has been demonstrated across numerous studies. The practice actually dates back to the Civil War and accounted for about 25% of all votes in the 2016 election.

Below, we detail everything you need to know about how voting by mail works, who can do it, and whether there are any concerns you should be aware of before casting your ballot. 

How does voting by mail work? 

Voting by mail (also known as mail-in voting) encompasses two types of voting: absentee voting and all-mail voting. An absentee ballot is a ballot used to cast an absentee vote for registered voters who are unable to be physically present at a polling place on Election Day. All-mail voting refers to the five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—that hold all-mail ballot elections. In those states, ballots are automatically sent to registered voters, though it’s worth noting that these ballots will be sent to the address under which voters are registered. 

For both of these options, voters receive their ballot with everything they would expect to see on Election Day at the polls. They fill it out according to the instructions and send it back in where it will be counted. 

Where is voting by mail legal? 

In addition to the five states that hold all-mail ballot elections, this year three other states and one territory are automatically mailing ballots to most voters, including California, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Washington, D.C.

Every state also offers some form of absentee voting, but the rules around who is eligible vary. Two-thirds of states allow for absentee voting without an excuse, while the other third require a legitimate reason. Check your local election office website for exact information as soon as possible to make sure that you can receive your ballot on time. 

How is voting by mail different from casting an absentee ballot? 

Essentially, voting by mail includes absentee ballots, as well as all-mail ballot elections. However, absentee ballots—in regular election years—must include an excuse as to why you are voting absentee. This year, many states have initiated what is called no-excuse absentee voting, in which voters can request their absentee ballot to vote by mail without providing a reason. Check your local election website for your voting options.

What are the advantages of voting by mail? 

There are several advantages to voting by mail. For one, it allows voters to avoid long lines on Election Day. This can make the process more comfortable and doesn’t create any problems with work or other obligations. Voting by mail also allows voters to make more informed decisions and take their time researching candidates or ballot propositions while consulting their ballots.

During this year’s election, voting by mail also removes the potential of being exposed to COVID-19.

Is voting by mail safe? 

Yes. Voting by mail has been shown to have nearly nonexistent fraud. Generally, voting by mail is strict. In fact, it can result in ballots being rejected due to things like signatures not exactly matching those on file, and other issues. Some states are more lenient about allowing voters to fix mistakes that lead to a rejected ballot. However, voters should always read instructions carefully for everything from how to fill in your choices to where you need to sign and what the postage will be.

Should I be concerned about delays at the USPS? 

The USPS is able to handle huge volumes of mail, and this year should be no different. Out of an abundance of caution, though, the Postal Service is warning of potential delays. On the plus side, mail volume due to the coronavirus pandemic is down from last year (36% between the months of April through June), which will ultimately favor those voting by mail. However, it’s always wise to err on the side of caution, especially as the Trump administration continues to undermine the U.S. Postal Service and sow disinformation about voting by mail. 

What can I do to make sure my vote is counted? 

First, be sure you are registered to vote now. Some states have registration deadlines a month before the election. If you are not living in an all-mail voting state, or in a state where ballots are automatically being mailed to registered voters, request and submit your absentee ballot as early as possible.

Check with your state’s election office website for all guidelines and important dates, and follow the ballot instructions exactly to ensure a smooth process. In the event that your ballot is rejected, this will also allow for ample time to fix your ballot. However, according to the Washington Post, only 19 states require an election official to notify you if there are problems with your ballot and provide solutions for how to resubmit it.