A masked voter deposits her absentee ballot in an “official ballot drop box” in Connecticut on August 11, 2020. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images
There isn’t really any difference between the two.
Throughout the 2020 presidential election, as President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked voting by mail as prone to fraud (it’s not), he has also taken pains to distinguish between “voting by mail” and “absentee voting.”
Given that Trump himself is voting absentee in 2020, this hair-splitting on his part isn’t exactly shocking. But Trump’s specific claims — that absentee voting and “voting by mail” are somehow different, and that absentee voters “have to go through a whole process” different from that for mail voters — are worth addressing.
The short version is that there’s no firm distinction between absentee voting and voting by mail. There’s a colloquial distinction between the two, but not a legal one. And there’s no reason to think “voting by mail,” insofar as it informally refers to something different from “absentee voting,” is prone to fraud or other problems.
The difference between voting by mail and absentee voting
“Voting by mail” is typically used to refer to voting in the five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah — where all elections are conducted entirely by mail, and in the states of California, Nebraska, and North Dakota, where counties have the option to choose to conduct elections entirely by mail.
This year, California is going a step further due to Covid-19 and mailing ballots to every eligible voter, though some polling places will remain open. Nebraska will be mailing absentee ballot applications to all voters, in addition to its normal all-mail elections in certain rural counties.
A few states that are not traditionally vote-by-mail states are sending out ballots to all registered and/or eligible voters this year due to the unique circumstances of the pandemic. These states are New Jersey, Vermont, and Nevada, plus the District of Columbia. Montana is allowing counties to decide whether to mail ballots to all.
“Absentee voting,” by contrast, tends to be used to refer to voting by mail in states or counties where the practice is not already universal. In most states where voting by mail isn’t universal, absentee voting is available for any reason — that is, voters do not need to provide an excuse for why they aren’t voting in person — at least in the 2020 election, due to the pandemic.
This no-excuse absentee voting is available in major swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. In 10 states — Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Nebraska (as mentioned above), Massachusetts, Maryland, Delaware, Illinois, Connecticut, and New Mexico — every registered voter is getting mailed an absentee ballot application, making them similar to the states mailing actual ballots to everyone, albeit with an extra step in the process.
But some states require excuses to vote absentee. The New York Times’s Juliette Love, Matt Stevens, and Lazaro Gamio looked up the state laws on this and note that Texas, Indiana, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi all require certain excuses for voters to receive absentee ballots. New York did too until recently, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation making all voters eligible for absentee ballots if they cite Covid-19 as a reason.
The excuses the states will accept vary widely, per the National Council of State Legislatures. For instance, having a work shift during voting hours is a valid reason to request an absentee ballot in South Carolina and Louisiana, but not in Texas or New York. South Carolina, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Indiana allow people above a certain age (usually 65) to request absentee ballots without needing another excuse.
Trump’s claims about absentee voting and vote-by-mail fraud are incorrect
In both absentee voting and “vote by mail,” insofar as they’re at all different, voter fraud is rare. One reason for this is the steps states take to make fraud all but impossible. For example, back in 2019, the Pacific Standard’s Spenser Mestel explained Oregon’s process for verifying ballots in its all-mail system:
In Oregon, both the absentee envelope and ballot have a barcode unique to each voter, and in the larger counties, like Marion, a machine scans for any discrepancies between the two, or any duplicate barcodes. Then, a team of election workers trained in forensic handwriting analyzes the ballot signatures to verify the identification of the voter, who has two weeks to prove her identity should the signature be contested.
During this process, “everything that is happening is on camera at all times,” says Tayleranne Gillespie, the communications director for the Oregon Secretary of State. “No one’s ever by themselves counting ballots. It’s always done in bipartisan teams.”
It’s also important to note that, contrary to popular belief, absentee ballots don’t “only count” if an election is close. They are often the last ballots to be counted, so often blowout elections are “called” by news services before every absentee ballot is tallied up. But all votes are counted eventually. Ballots that might have eligibility problems (if, say, poll workers can’t confirm a voter is registered to vote) are sometimes classified as “provisional ballots,” which are counted after being investigated. But that’s a distinct issue from absentee ballots.
In short: Absentee and vote-by-mail are basically the same thing, both have low rates of fraud, and one of the two will be available to the vast majority of American voters on November 3, 2020.
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