How Absentee Ballot Works

Most US voters usually vote in person at a polling station where the state recognizes them as registered voters. Those who cannot visit the polling station physically on Election Day can request an absentee ballot through their respective state government. The officials reserve the right to accept or reject an absentee ballot.

When approved, the election officials usually mail an absentee ballot to the voter. The latter fills the ballot form, signs, and returns it by mail, though some submit the form by fax. If improperly filled out, the election officials may reject the ballot. In many states, any registered voter may use an absentee ballot—the voter typically receives the ballot by mail 18 days before Election Day (at the latest).

The rules for accepting absentee ballots vary from state to state. Most states generally accept absentee ballots on a deadline set on Election Day, while other states will accept such ballots arriving after Election Day as long as the ballots are postmarked before Election Day. However, officials can only count absentee ballots on Election Day together with votes cast in person. Voters can apply for absentee ballots 90 days before the election date.

Real-World Example of Absentee Ballots

George McClellan and Abraham Lincoln contested the 1964 US Presidential election. At that time, 19 states changed the law and introduced absentee voting for soldiers. A few states also allowed soldiers to use a proxy to vote on their behalf (back home). After this, the military authorities put up a few polling stations within the camp where soldiers could vote.

Consequent to this, some 150,000 of the 1,000,000 soldiers voted in this election. Further, in the late 19th century, several states offered ordinary citizens a chance to use absentee voting. However, the authorities required those requesting this privilege to provide an acceptable excuse (perhaps being far from a voting station or due to illness). In 1870, the US Congress passed the 15th Amendment, which expanded the number of eligible voters to include absentee voters.

In the 2020 US presidential election, absentee voting became a significant matter for national debate, hitting the headlines in the election pitting the incumbent Republican President Donald Trump against his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. Eventually, most voters elected Joe Biden as the 46th President of the US—primarily on the strength of millions of absentee ballots cast before Election Day.

History of Absentee Ballot

The US absentee ballot and the mail-in voting system started way back during the Civil war and the Second World War. By the late 19th century, certain states had arranged to extend absentee ballots to civilians—albeit with conditions.

In the early 1800s, the first paper ballots came onto the scene. Initially, these were merely some blank pieces of paper. By the mid-1800s, some political parties started printing tickets bearing their candidates’ names. The parties generally pre-filled the ballot papers.

In 1888, Massachusetts and New York became the first US states to introduce pre-printed ballots bearing all the candidates’ names. This system was known as the “Australian Ballot,” indicating the country of origin. Significantly, this was the first time for a state to introduce absentee voting. In the year 2000, Oregon became the first US state to embrace an all-mail voting system.

Absentee Ballot vs Mail-in Ballot

The law in most US states allows registered voters who cannot visit the polling booth in person to apply for absentee ballots. The voters often submit such ballots by mail.

The term “mail-in ballots” can refer to absentee ballots mailed in by absentee voters. It can also refer to ballots that officials provide to all eligible voters in the various states using the all-mail voting system. The “all-mail” voting states include Washington, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and Hawaii.