Mail-in voting vs. absentee voting: Every difference to know before Election Day

Mail-in voting vs. absentee voting: Every difference to know before Election Day

This year, Americans across the country have multiple options when it comes to voting on Nov. 3 — from voting early in-person to dropping your ballots in the mail (mail-in and absentee), and of course, voting in person on Election Day. If you choose to go the mail-in route, you can track your ballot online.

With so many voting options, it can be difficult to figure out which is best for you and what the different options actually mean, so we’ve gathered everything you need to know about your voting options and how to find out what your state is doing.


What is absentee voting?

Every US state allows mail-in, absentee voting, but typically only under certain circumstances. For example, in the past, many states only allowed you to get an absentee ballot if you were deployed with the US armed forces, were going to be out of town on Election Day or were ill.

Amid the pandemic, however, at least 35 states have changed their mail-in absentee voting policies, allowing all voters to apply for an absentee ballot to cut down on the risk of spreading the virus. Some states are calling the expanded criteria for absentee voting “no-excuse absentee voting,” a term that indicates you don’t need to explain why you want an absentee ballot as you have in the past — but you’ll still need to fill out an application and request one, either online or through mail.

However, other states have decided to automatically send every citizen an absentee ballot or a form to fill out to request one. That’s when we start to see the term mail-in voting — as opposed to absentee voting — used to refer to a wider policy of absentee voting for all.

If you’re in the US, you must be registered to vote before you’re eligible to get an absentee ballot. (You can register to vote online in 40 states and the District of Columbia.) But if you’re currently overseas or a military member, you have some other options.

To find out your state’s current absentee ballot laws, you can use this tool to find your state or local election office.

What is mail-in voting?

The terms absentee voting and mail-in voting are often used interchangeably. However, some election officials have started using the term “mail-in ballots” or “vote by mail” because they’re expanding absentee ballot eligibility during the pandemic to include people who aren’t actually absent from their precinct at the time of voting.

In a number of states, including California, Delaware and Illinois, ballots will automatically be mailed to every eligible voter without request or application needed, so some election officials are using the terms “all-mail voting” or “universal vote by mail.” Still, a limited number of polling places will likely be available for those who want to vote in person.

Ultimately, when states talk about mail-in voting, they’re talking broadly about all ballots that are sent through the mail. In some states, this could mean all of the no-excuse absentee ballots. In others, it could mean all of the universal vote by mail ballots. So different states may use different terms. See how vote by mail works in your stateRead more>>