Some states have allowed general mail-in voting for years. Washington has allowed it since 2005. Most allow a form of mail-in voting called absentee voting, which was implemented in the 19th century to allow soldiers fighting in the US Civil War to cast a vote from wherever the conflict took them.
Today, every state allows some form of mail-in voting. Some place restrictions on absentee voting, like requiring an excuse or medical reason for why an individual cannot physically go to the polls.
How does it work?
It’s important to know that states are continually making adjustments to their voting procedures as election day gets closer due to the pandemic. As a result, one of the most important things voters can do is keep informed of their state’s elections rules by reading their local newspapers or watching their local news broadcasts.
In addition, voters can always reach out to their county’s board of elections or equivalent agency to request the latest information regarding voting in their state.
In most states, voting by mail requires a citizen to first ensure they are registered to vote. Learn how to do so here.
Once you have registered, then you can request an absentee ballot.
The specific rules for your state’s absentee voting is available through your state’s election office.
Some states send out absentee ballots automatically, and voters can choose whether or not to use them. Other states require voters to go onto their state election office’s website and request a ballot. The US government recommends the US Vote Foundation for voters looking for assistance in filling out their absentee ballot.
It is important to remember that every state has its own deadline for when you can request an absentee ballot, which will be listed on its elections office website. Deadlines differ, but many states require that absentee ballots are received at least five days prior to the election, though some are earlier.
Generally when requesting an absentee ballot, voters request which party they would like a ballot for. Once they have received the ballot, they can make their selections and mail the ballot back to the state. Every voter – especially those voting by mail for the first time – should read the instructions carefully and double check their ballot before sending it back. Make sure you have the correct postage on your envelope. The USPS will actually still deliver your ballot if the postage is incorrect, but the agency urges voters not to abuse that kindness.
Is voting by mail safe?
In terms of physical safety for yourself and others, voting by mail is probably the best way to limit spreading or exposing others to coronavirus come election day.
Donald Trump has made it clear he opposes mail in voting, claiming it will lead to increased voter fraud. However, while it may provide an opportunity for fraud, experts say the incidence of stolen ballots is so low as to be statistically insignificant. Voter fraud is rare in the US, they say.
Mr Trump believes that voters should have to provide an excuse for why they need mail-in ballots. He has not provided any evidence to suggest that implementing the requirements would decrease potential fraud.
Amber Reynolds, the chief executive of the National Vote at Home Institute and a former Colorado election official, and Charles Stewart, director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, spoke with NPR about the risks of mail in voting as compared to in-person voting.
“Expanding voting by mail will be a challenge in most states in 2020. But we reiterate: there is no evidence that mail-balloting results in rampant voter fraud, nor that election officials lack the knowledge about how to protect against abuse,” they said.
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