Come this November, the 2020 presidential election will probably look a lot different than those of years past. As the pandemic continues and the threat of a second wave in the fall looms, gathering at polls and waiting in long lines poses a real, increased risk of spreading the coronavirus. After the Wisconsin primary in April, for example, dozens of positive COVID-19 cases were traced and linked back to in-person voting. These effects will inevitably be amplified in the presidential election, where there’s greater voter engagement and when everyone votes on the same day.
The obvious alternative to showing up to the polls is mail-in voting, a practice that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended to help reduce the spread. Only five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—have universal mail-in voting, meaning elections are conducted entirely by mail and a ballot is automatically mailed to every registered voter. There are 27 other states that have no-excuse mail-in voting, so a voter doesn’t need a documented excuse for not voting in person, and a dozen more are waiving previous excuse requirements to allow any registered voter to vote by mail due to the pandemic. Right now, most states are working to expand the practice to serve the expected surge in voters that will opt to vote by mail. There are four that have yet to change eligibility rules and still require a documented excuse—Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee, and Mississippi. For context, excuses are, by Texas standards, being over the age of 65, having a disability, being confined in jail but otherwise eligible, and being out of the county on election day and during the period for early voting by personal appearance.
Mail-in voting in the upcoming election should be a nonissue, but it’s resulted in what appears to be a mostly one-sided debate from President Donald Trump. “Mail-In Ballot fraud found in many elections. People are just now seeing how bad, dishonest and slow it is,” Trump wrote in a tweet. “Election results could be delayed for months. No more big election night answers? 1% not even counted in 2016. Ridiculous!” These claims are, to the surprise of no one, unsubstantiated. There has never been a case of widespread voter fraud in United States history. In fact, a mere 491 cases of alleged election fraud have occurred across all elections (not just presidential) in America since 2000, according to News21, a national investigative reporting project on voting. In this span of time, billions of votes were cast, making the number of fraudulent cases extremely rare.
Trump also drew a line between absentee ballots and mail-in voting: “Absentee Ballots are fine because you have to go through a precise process to get your voting privilege. Not so with Mail-Ins. Rigged Election!!! 20% fraudulent ballots?” Though different states use different terms, absentee ballots and mail-in voting are basically the same thing. Absentee ballots originated during the American Civil War, when men in the military were absent from the state in which they would typically vote, and they’re used in every state for the same purpose now. To vote absentee, one has to request a ballot. Mail-in voting is a catch-all phrase for the process of voting by postal mail. Technically, absentee ballots are a type of mail-in voting.
You can register to vote online in 39 states. For the others, you’ll have to print, fill-in, and mail the National Mail Voter Registration Form. This form can also be used to update registration information, like a name change, and to register with a political party. You may be able to register to vote at your Department of Transportation/Motor Vehicles too, if you happen to go there before the election. Keep in mind that some voter registration deadlines are as early as one month before an election and that Election Day is November 3rd. If using the form, you’ll want to mail it well ahead of time to account for delays in postal mail. If you’re from one of the five states with universal mail-in voting, once you’ve registered, you’re done! You’ll get your ballot in the mail.
The next step is to request your mail-in or absentee ballot. For the states that don’t have no-excuse mail-in voting but are expanding in response to the pandemic, you’ll most likely have to go through the absentee process, even if you’re living at your home address. There are generally four ways to request an absentee ballot, varying from state to state: an online form, a form that you print out and mail, over the phone at your county’s election office, and in person at your county’s election office. The same methods apply to requesting a mail-in ballot as well. On the absentee ballot, if a documented excuse is required, it’s likely your state has advised you to check "Temporary Illness" or some variety of this term (but review your state’s guidelines for specifics first). The definition of this excuse has been expanded by states to include those affected by the coronavirus or the potential for contracting it.
The deadline for absentee or mail-in ballot applications ranges from 21 days to one day before Election Day. Election offices must mail ballots to you at least 45 days ahead of an election, and ballots requested online may arrive immediately via email. Once you receive your ballot, it’s truly as simple as filling it out and mailing it back or dropping it off at a poll site.