November 24, 2020
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


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This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET’s coverage of the run-up to voting in November.

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 voting in person on Election Day. If you’re planning to vote by mail, Tuesday is the final day some election officials recommend sending your ballot off to make sure it’s received in time due to possible postal delays. 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. 

Read more: Ahead of election 2020: Tips on finding information you can trust


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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. Now that we’re a week away from the election, the deadline to register to vote has already passed in many states, but many still allow you to do so in person — find out your state’s registration deadlines and rules here.) 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

Read more: Yes, a second stimulus check could bring you more money. Here’s how

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 were automatically 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 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 state.

Read more: Experts warn the coronavirus pandemic creates new election security threats.

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You can vote by mail this election.


Angela Lang/CNET

So what’s the real difference between absentee ballots and mail-in voting?

Typically, absentee ballots refer to ballots that are requested and then mailed when a person can’t vote in person. Mail-in ballots refer to ballots in the context of policies that allow all people to vote by mail. 

Will my mail-in ballot count toward the final election result? 

Yes. All votes are counted in local or presidential elections, whether you cast a ballot in person or by mail. A common myth is that absentee ballots are only counted during tight races, but this isn’t correct. Many elections have a clear winner and mailed-in ballots, many of which are from abroad, are sometimes counted in the days after, which gives the impression they weren’t included in the count. The final tally, however, does reflect mail-in ballots. As mail-in voting becomes more popular, they will be more integral to upcoming election results, Vote.org noted. Election officials also say it’s nearly impossible to commit voter fraud by mail

On Sept. 3, the US Department of Homeland issued an intelligence bulletin warning that Russia is likely to continue amplifying criticisms of vote-by-mail processes to undermine public trust in the US electoral process. 

It’s important to note that mail-in ballots — both traditional absentee ballots and widespread vote-by-mail ballots — can be rejected. In the 2016 presidential election, missing or unverified signatures, and late arrivals were the most common reasons a ballot wouldn’t be counted, according to a US Election Assistance Commission report. Make sure you read the directions on your ballot carefully and fill it out correctly. And when applicable, check your state’s deadlines for requesting or mailing an absentee ballot to make sure you get it sent in time. 

Read more: How do you know if your vote counts this election? Here are 7 things you can do


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What other types of voting are there?

Other types of voting include:

In-person voting: This is what you usually think of during an election: People going to a local polling location to cast their vote in person on Election Day or before. 

Early voting: Most states allow qualified voters to cast a ballot in person during a designated time before Election Day. Early voting could begin as early as 45 days before an election, or as late as the week before. The goal is usually to increase voter turnout and decrease congestion at the polls on Election Day. Find out if your state offers early voting by searching for your state election office here.

Online voting: Voting online is a legal way to cast your ballot, through a ballot that appears on a web browser, for example. This method poses privacy risks and security vulnerabilities, but for some Americans, it also presents one of the only ways they can vote.

For more, check out all of CNET’s 2020 election coverage





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