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No-Excuse Absentee Voting

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Written by Dr. Madeleine Roberts
Published on December 19, 2023
Research Highlights

27 states currently allow for no-excuse absentee voting. 8 states use universal mail-in voting to conduct elections.

Expansion of vote-by-mail can increase turnout by as much as 2%.

Expansion of vote-by-mail does not benefit one political party, by increased total turnout or by increased vote share.

All states allow for some form of absentee voting.

The extent to which voters choose an absentee voting method and which voters are eligible to vote absentee vary by state. Absentee voting is also called “mail-in voting” or “vote-by-mail” in other states (Figure 1) (NCSL 2023).

  • MO and 14 other states require a voter to meet eligibility requirements and have a valid excuse in order to receive an absentee ballot in the mail.
  • 27 states currently do not require an excuse to vote-by-mail as an alternative to in-person voting.
  • 8 states (CO, HI, OR, UT, WA, CA, NV, VT, plus D.C.) have moved to mailing all voters a ballot, called universal vote-by-mail.

In the 2022 General Election, in-person voting was the most common method Americans used to vote. Nationally, 49% of voters voted in-person on Election Day, 31% of voters cast their ballot by mail, and 22% of voters cast a ballot in-person before Election Day (U.S. Election Assistance Commission 2023).

 

Increasing access to vote-by-mail can modestly increase voter turnout.

No excuse absentee voting. Studies of absentee voting have found mixed evidence about the impact of no-excuse absentee voting on voter turnout; some have found no impact and some have found a slight positive impact ( Yoder 2021, Burden 2014, Giammo 2010, Karp 2001).

Relaxing absentee voting requirements tends to increase the number of people who choose to vote-by-mail but this happens among groups that are already likely to vote (Berinksy 2005, Karp 2001). Therefore, research suggests that this policy provides a convenient option for current voters but does not engage new or disadvantaged citizens in voting (Karp 2001).

Universal vote-by-mail. Universal vote-by-mail, where all voters are automatically mailed a ballot, consistently demonstrates increased turnout (Burden 2014).

  • Studies of CA, UT, and WA find that universal vote-by-mail increases turnout by 2-3% in midterm and presidential elections (Thompson 2021, Gerber 2013).
  • The transition to universal vote-by-mail in CO led to increased turnout among young, low-income, and racial/ethnic minority citizens (Bonica 2021).

All vote-by-mail options.  The extent to which voters use vote-by-mail depends on policies involving voter registration (auto or same-day registration) and policies within the absentee ballot process (ID requirements, witness requirements, postage, early return deadlines) (B. Burden, personal communication). Generally, mail-in-voting is one of several policies that need to work in concert to increase voter turnout, including auto or same day registration (Burden 2014).

Voting by mail does not benefit one political party over another; neither party is advantaged by increased turnout or total vote share (Berinsky 2001, Thompson 2021).

Vote-by-mail increases ballot completion, as voters can spend more time researching their choices in all races on the ballot while voting (Menger 2017).

 

There are common concerns with the expansion of vote-by-mail.

Increase in ballot rejections. Once an absentee ballot is received, officials decide if the ballot can be counted.

  • “Lost” ballots are increased by mail-in voting. In 2016, 1.1% of mail-in ballots contained errors that render them unable to be counted while 0.33% of all votes cast were rejected (Stewart 2020).
  • Inexperienced voters are more likely to submit a mail-in ballot that is rejected due to missed deadlines, missing documents, or signature defects. This inexperience penalty disproportionately affects young and racial/ethnic minority voters. (Cottrell 2021).

Ballot curing is a process that gives the voter the opportunity to correct an identification issue with a returned absentee ballot so their ballot can be counted and allows election officials to investigate potential cases where someone voted on another person’s ballot.

Concern about election security and fraud. The lack of official oversight of the person filling out the ballot and the potential for improper interception of a ballot in transit are two main concerns with vote-by-mail methods.

  • Recent studies have not found evidence of expansion of vote-by-mail leading to widespread increased voter fraud (Wu 2020, Auerbach 2021).
  • Systems such as in-person ballot drop-off, ballot tracking, and signature verification are commonly implemented in states with expanded vote-by-mail with the goal of increasing voter confidence that their ballot will be counted and in the security of elections.

See our Science Notes “Absentee Voting” and “Ballot Signature Verification and Curing” to learn more about the implementation of absentee voting in recent elections.

Figure 1 States colored by their Vote by Mail policies in 2023.

 

References

Auerbach J, Pierson S (2021) Does Voting by Mail Increase Fraud? Estimating the Change in Reported Voter Fraud When States Switch to Elections By Mail. Statistics and Public Policy, 8(1), 18–41. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/epdf/10.1080/2330443X.2021.1906806?needAccess=true

Berinsky AJ (2005) The perverse consequences of electoral reform in the United States. American Politics Research, 33(4), 471–491. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1532673X04269419?journalCode=aprb

Berinsky AJ, Burns N, Traugott MW (2001) Who Votes By Mail? A Dynamic Model of the Individual-Level Consequences of Voting-By-Mail Systems. Public Opinion Quarterly, 65, 178–197. https://academic.oup.com/poq/article-abstract/65/2/178/1877024?redirectedFrom=fulltext&login=false

Bonica A, Grumbach JM, Hill C, Jefferson H (2021) All-mail voting in Colorado increases turnout and reduces turnout inequality. Electoral Studies, 72, 102363. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36540291/

Burden, BC, Canon DT, Mayer KR, Moynihan DP (2014) Election laws, mobilization, and turnout: The unanticipated consequences of election reform. American Journal of Political Science, 58(1), 95–109. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/ajps.12063

Cottrell D, Herron MC, Smith DA (2021) Vote-by-mail Ballot Rejection and Experience with Mail-in Voting. American Politics Research, 49(6), 577–590. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1532673X211022626?casa_token=11j-Mr_TSCcAAAAA%3ASEGiUI2ITIK3iPNbdv8N0vicS4OMkn2gXbhT-gYxJkSxeqC7OhbedoGNpfdihNrVPSDkQb2I&journalCode=aprb

Gerber AS, Huber GA, Hill SJ (2013) Identifying the Effect of All-Mail Elections on Turnout: Staggered Reform in the Evergreen State. Political Science Research and Methods, 1(1), 91–116. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/political-science-research-and-methods/article/abs/identifying-the-effect-of-allmail-elections-on-turnout-staggered-reform-in-the-evergreen-state/3725E51B9B7F331D77DC9B49130D7F7D

Giammo JD, Brox BJ (2010) Reducing the Costs of Participation: Are States Getting a Return on Early Voting? Source: Political Research Quarterly, 63(2), 295–303. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20721491

Karp JA, Banducci SA (2001) Absentee Voting, Mobilization, and Participation. American Politics Research, 29(2), 183–195. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1532673X01029002003

Menger A, Stein RM, & Vonnahme G (2017) Reducing the Undervote With Vote by Mail. American Politics Research, 46(6), 1039–1064. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1532673X17737059

Stewart III CH (2020) Reconsidering Lost Votes by Mail. Harvard Data Science Review, 2(4). https://hdsr.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/l16wrj7d/release/4

Thompson DM, Wu JA, Yoder J, Hall AB (2021) Universal vote-by-mail has no impact on partisan turnout or vote share. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(25), 14052–14056. https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2007249117

U.S. Election Assistance Commission (2023) Election Administration and Voting Survey 2022 Comprehensive Report. https://www.eac.gov/sites/default/files/2023-06/2022_EAVS_Report_508c.pdf

Wu J, Yorgason C, Folsz H, Handan-Nader C, Myers A, Nowacki T, Thompson DM, Yoder J, Hall AM (2020) Are Dead People Voting By Mail? Evidence From Washington State Administrative Records. https://stanforddpl.org/papers/wu_et_al_2020_dead_voting/wu_et_al_2020_dead_voting.pdf

Yoder J, Handan-Nader C, Myers A, Nowacki T, Thompson DM, Wu JA, Yorgason C, Hall AM (2021) How did absentee voting affect the 2020 U.S. election? Sci. Adv. 7, eabk1755. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8694609/

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