Everything You Need to Know About Voting by Mail vs. Absentee Voting

With many people still keeping their distance at home, voting this year is going to work a little differently. Think less in-person polling, long lines, and crowded areas; more remote voting that can be done from the comfort (and safety) of your own space. Things are changing quickly, and in order to allow more voters to stay home on election day, certain states have even modified some of their voting laws, working toward a “new normal.” These are huge steps towards safer voting, but the ever-evolving rules and voting terminology can become confusing quickly.

Thankfully, despite the recent push to vote more remotely, not everything is new. In fact, there have always been different ways to vote from home depending on the state you live in. These options are most commonly referred to as “absentee voting” and “voting by mail,” but their differences are pretty convoluted. To provide some clarification and help you decide which method you might prefer, we broke down all the basics (and you can go here to quickly see any discrepancies in your own state).

What Is Absentee Voting?

“Absentee voting” is commonly used to describe a ballot that is mailed in when the voter in question can’t make it to a polling place in person. Historically, this option was only used in specific circumstances, like if a voter was serving in the military or had become sick on election day, but this is no longer the case.

These days, you can request an absentee ballot in any state, and a total of 35 states allow you to request an absentee ballot without any excuse. The remaining states do require valid excuses, but many have changed their absentee policies for the 2020 elections, making it easier for people to cast their votes from home for any reason. You can go here to find out if there have been any recent changes to the absentee voting laws in your state.

What Is Voting by Mail?

“Voting by mail” and “mail-in voting” are relatively vague terms that differ in meaning depending on where you are. For some, it’s a simple way to refer to any and all ballots cast by mail. For others, it’s a more specific descriptor for any absentee ballot cast by a person who is not actually physically absent or unable to vote in person.

“Voting by mail” is also sometimes used to reference states like Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, where all voters automatically receive a ballot that they can simply fill out and mail in (a method other states are also adopting for 2020 elections). While this doesn’t necessarily mean that all voters have to vote through mail, it does make the option easily available to everyone in these states — no excuse or absentee application required. This type of voting is also called “all-mail voting” or “universal vote by mail.”

What’s the Difference?

The truth is that the specific differences between these two types of voting vary based on the state and the person referring to them. More generally, the main difference between these voting processes is that absentee voting typically requires an excuse (or at least some kind of application), and voting by mail does not. Again, “voting by mail” can mean different things in different states, but it typically describes a ballot that is received without an application and cast through the mail without any major excuses or special circumstances.

How Can I Vote?

Deciding how to vote in this election is a highly personal choice that will depend on your state voting laws and any changes that have been made as a result of the pandemic. To cast an absentee ballot in a state that requires an excuse, you can find your state or local election office website here to see what excuses are considered valid. Some states are taking COVID-19 related concerns as valid excuses, and others have rescinded the need for excuses altogether for 2020 elections. Make sure to check your state’s most recent voting laws.

To cast an absentee ballot in a state that doesn’t require an excuse, just fill out an absentee ballot application by your state’s deadline (which can be found here) and either submit it through the mail or drop it off in person at an appropriate polling site.

If you choose to vote by mail using the ballot sent to you by your state, simply fill out and submit the ballot you receive by your state’s deadline (which is the same as the deadline for absentee ballots, found here). Most states also allow for early voting, and there are plenty of additional resources with more information about when early voting starts in your state.

Additionally, in-person polls will still be available in some states, but they will be expected to follow CDC guidelines. Ultimately, no matter how you decide to cast your vote, the most important thing is that you’re letting your voice be heard and staying safe in the process. Check your state’s current voting laws and see what works best for you.

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