Mail-in vs. absentee voting: What’s the difference?



He has adjusted his rhetoric in the past few weeks. It’s not just “mail-in” voting he now opposes, but rather, as he has put it, “universal mail-in voting.” During a press conference last week, he explained why he’s all for absentee voting, but opposed to mail-in voting:

“Absentee voting is great. You request — I’m an absentee voter because I requested, I got, and then I sent in my vote. So that works out very well. That’s what we’ve had. But now they want to send in millions and millions of ballots.”

However, in contrast, he said universal mail-in voting would be very very bad:

“Universal mail-in voting is going to be catastrophic. It’s going to make our country a laughingstock all over the world. You can’t send out millions of ballots.”

But here’s the thing. A whole lot of absentee voting (most of it!) is done by mail. An absentee vote is a vote cast outside of the voting booth, traditionally for very specific and limited reasons. There’s been some version of absentee voting by mail since the Civil War, when troops voting from the battlefield helped Abraham Lincoln win reelection.

It’s worked so well that several states have moved to all mail-in voting system, where they automatically send ballots to all registered voters. Oregon is the classic example of “universal mail-in voting” since mail-in voting is all they do.

The distinction, as it seems to exist in Trump’s mind, appears to be between states that conduct their elections primarily by mail and those that require voters to request a ballot to be turned in by mail.

Trump says automatically sending mail ballots to all registered voters is BAD. But having to request your mail ballot is GOOD. The first system is often called “universal vote-by-mail” or “all-mail” election. The second system is called “absentee voting” and can be “no-excuse” or no excuse required.

This year’s election, partly because of a general trend toward away from polling-place voting and partly because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, is going to see more mail-in ballots than ever. According to a new CNN poll, in which 34% say they prefer to vote by mail in the presidential election, 22% say they want to vote early at a polling place, and just 43% say they would prefer to vote in-person on Election Day.

That represents a 10-point increase over the share who voted by mail in 2016: 24%, according to the US Election Assistance Commission.

There are 50 US states and in 42 of them, for this year, anyone who wants to vote by mail can do so.

Here are the details, according to CNN’s political unit:

  • Eight states, in addition to Washington, DC, will be conducting a primarily vote-by-mail election in November (CA*, CO, DC*, HI, NV*, OR, UT, VT*, WA)
  • 34 states allow voters to request a mail ballots with no excuse (AL*, AK, AR*, AZ, CT*, DE*, FL, GA, ID, IL*, IA*, KS, ME, MA*, MD, MI*, MN, MO*, MT, NE, NH*, NJ, NM, NC, ND, OH*, OK, PA, RI, SD, VA, WV*, WI, WY)
  • Eight states require an excuse to cast a ballot by mail (IN, KY, LA, MS, NY, SC, TN*, TX)

Asterisks denote a change was made due to coronavirus.

This is a good place to insert the fact that each state governs its own election rules. So no one is actually talking about universal mail-in voting for the entire country, although you could imagine Democrats being supportive of the idea. Multiple states have changed election rules during the pandemic and made it easier to vote absentee, by mail.

There is something else to consider. Since there will be so many more people mailing ballots in this year, and since that might slow down the mail, there’s a very good chance we will not know the winner of the presidential election on election night. And that’s Trump’s latest complaint. In 2016, mail-in ballots and absentee ballots made Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin grow over Trump’s for weeks after Election Day. Different states have different rules about when ballots can be received and still counted. Under the current system, election-watchers have identified a “blue shift,” where the post-election tally of mail in votes over days or weeks tends to favor Democrats.

Trump acknowledged the lack of a distinction between voting by mail and absentee voting earlier this month when he encouraged Floridians — people living in a state he thinks he can win — to absentee vote by mail.

“Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting, in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True. Florida’s Voting system has been cleaned up (we defeated Democrats attempts at change), so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail! #MAGA”

So there you go. Call it whatever you want. Just vote. And to make this work smoothly, vote soon.

In fact, Trump will probably cast his presidential vote absentee in Florida. We know this because he voted, absentee, and in the Florida congressional primary on Tuesday. He’ll do it. He just doesn’t want everybody to do it. But rather than mail it, he’ll send it via someone else who has signed an affidavit.

And look for the next frontier to be a fight over how absentee ballots can be collected, if not by mail. Sometimes, third parties — organizations or political parties — will gather sealed ballots. The practice, known as ballot collection or “harvesting,” is not legal in every state. It is also at the heart of GOP suspicions about mail-in voting.

However, the same security protocols for all mail-in voting (unique codes, signature verification and others) still apply to these absentee ballots. These security protocols identified the major example of election fraud in recent years, in North Carolina in 2018, perpetrated by a Republican operative.

Increased access to absentee voting in Nevada is currently the subject a fight over ballot collection.

CNN’s Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.



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