Written by Lica Porcile, a legal intern at Campaign Legal Center
Our democracy works best when every voter can participate, which is why every citizen should have a convenient way to vote in our elections and make their voice heard.
Vote-by-mail – sometimes called absentee voting – is a safe, secure and accessible way to vote that has existed since the Civil War and is used in red states and blue states alike. In eight states – California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington – voters cast their ballot primarily, though not exclusively, by mail.
Because of the pandemic, many states took steps to expand access to vote-by-mail during the 2020 election so more voters could safely vote from home without having to choose between voting and protecting their health. As a result, 43% of voters cast their ballot by mail in the 2020 election, compared to 21% of voters in 2016.
Campaign Legal Center recently released a report on voting access in all 50 states where you can learn more about mail and early voting options in your state.
How does vote-by-mail work?
To vote by mail, voters usually request an absentee ballot from their local elections office and provide their name and address. Only citizens who provided their social security number or a valid form of identification to election officials can vote.
Some states let any voter cast their ballot by mail, while others require that a voter meet specific criteria to be able to vote by mail. Either way, a local election official has to confirm the voter’s information and then mails the voter a ballot.
The ballot comes with two envelopes to help maintain the security and privacy of the ballot. Voters first fill out their ballot and place it in a small, sealed envelope. The completed and sealed ballot is then placed inside a second envelope which the voter must sign to swear – under penalty of perjury – that they are a registered voter.
From there, the voter can either mail their ballot or drop it off in-person at an early vote center, secure ballot drop box or at their polling place on Election Day.
Can I trust that my vote will be accurately counted if I vote by mail?
Mail-in ballots are verified multiple times to maintain the integrity of the vote. Election officials first verify the voter’s name and information and confirm the voter is registered in the appropriate location.
Then, election officials remove the sealed ballot from the outer envelope containing the voter’s identifying information to ensure the vote remains anonymous and confidential when the ballots are counted.
Overlapping security measures make sure every voter’s ballot is only counted once and is counted accurately. While the methods vary, every state has a procedure to maintain chain of custody and ensure ballots are not tampered with. Ballots are stored in locked containers, handled by multiple people at a time to maintain integrity, or are under 24-hour surveillance.
Many states also have ballot tracking procedures that let voters know the status of their ballot from the moment it is cast to when it is counted. Taken together, all these measures help make sure the election is secure and results are accurate.
What’s at stake?
Expanded access to vote-by-mail and early voting opportunities were key to the unprecedented turnout we saw during the 2020 election. States that had the highest use of vote-by-mail and early voting were also the states that experienced the greatest increase in voter turnout.
In 2020, more Americans were given the freedom to choose how to cast their ballot. Access to vote-by-mail, when offered in addition to early voting and in-person voting, has made our democracy stronger by allowing more voters to have a voice in it.
Unfortunately, some states have taken steps to restrict access to vote-by-mail since the 2020 election. For example, Kansas passed a law that makes it more difficult for organizations to help voters request a vote-by-mail ballot. CLC sued Kansas over the law and won, permanently blocking components of the law from going into effect.
Our democracy works best when every voter can participate. Having a variety of voting options has given people like working parents, older Americans, and people with disabilities greater access to the ballot box and ensured that more voters can participate in our democracy, no matter their circumstances.