By Meara Geraty
Digital Content Coordinator, RepresentUs

A public health emergency is reminding Americans how useful it is to be able to vote by mail.

The ongoing Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is upending American life as we know it. From shopping and socializing to daycare and dining out, our daily lives have screeched to a halt. But one thing hasn't changed: 2020 is a pivotal election year. 

Even while events are being canceled and entire cities are going on lockdown, many Americans who want to vote are being asked to risk their health and safety in crowded polling places. 

But it doesn't have to be that way if your state offers you the option to vote by mail. Find out how voting by mail works, where it’s already happening, and what you can do to support our nation and our elections during this public health crisis. 

Wait, you can vote by mail?

Yes - many Americans can vote by mail! Vote by mail, also known as absentee voting, is an increasingly popular voting method that's an alternative to going in person to a polling place on Election Day. 

Here's how it works: 

  1. Voters get a paper ballot sent to their mailbox
  2. They fill out their paper ballot, sign and seal the envelope
  3. They return their ballot by mail 

Vote by mail gives voters the option to vote securely, on their own schedules – without the stress of finding childcare, taking time off work… or worrying about a global pandemic. 

Who can (and can't) vote by mail right now? 

Map of state rules regarding vote by mail

Vote at home is available in every state – but not all Americans have access to it. There are three different ways states currently offer vote at home:

  1. Universal Vote by Mail: Some states, like Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii, have Universal Vote by Mail. Every registered voter in these states automatically receives a ballot by mail in the runup to Election Day, which they can fill out and send back or drop off at a secure location. For citizens who would rather vote in person, these states generally retain some centralized polling places.
  2. "No Excuse" Vote by Mail: Right now, 35 states allow any registered voter to request a ballot so they can vote absentee. If you live in one of these states you will need to register to vote and request a ballot by a specific deadline in order to get your ballot in time to participate in your state election. For some states, this is a temporary allowance given the coronavirus crisis.
  3. "Excuse" Vote by Mail: Several states, like Alabama, Massachusetts, and Kentucky, offer vote at home but require an excuse, such as being out of town, deployed overseas, or over a certain age, in order to qualify for an absentee ballot. 

Want to know where your state stands? Find out if you can vote from home this election season.

Will Americans be able to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic? 

Not yet – but there are initiatives underway right now that could change that.

Lawmakers at the state and federal level are working quickly to respond to this crisis and protect your health and your right to vote. News is moving fast, and some recent changes in legislation and elections may not yet be reflected here. 

Federal Vote at Home Legislation

While many Americans already have the option to vote by mail, voters in 4 states do not. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden introduced legislation on March 18 that would ensure all states allow voters to request absentee ballots and protect our health when a public health emergency, such as COVID-19, would make voting in person unsafe. 

The bill would:

  • Allow all voters to request a Vote by Mail ballot
  • Ensure states provide early voting for voters who would rather cast their ballot in person
  • Require states to develop and publish plans that ensure Americans can vote safely in an emergency 

Whether you live in a state that already offers vote by mail options, or you yourself would be unable to vote safely under the current circumstances, you can support yourself and your fellow Americans by signing our petition to urge your Senator to pass the bill.

State Action

The states also have the power to make Vote by Mail accessible to all Americans, by changing their policy or making Coronavirus a qualified excuse during this election. 

Virginia and West Virginia have already responded to the crisis by allowing all voters to request a mailed ballot—and it’s crucial the other states that require an excuse to vote absentee follow their lead. 

Why is voting by mail important?

Even before the pandemic turned our world upside down, the movement to expand vote by mail was on the rise, with more states and counties adopting it. Voting by mail gives Americans the option to vote securely and conveniently without worrying about taking time off of work to stand in long lines at crowded polling places. 

Voting by mail is especially useful for Americans who may have trouble accessing a polling place, such as seniors, people who can't take time off work, disabled voters, or even those who live in more rural areas and must travel long distances to reach a polling place. Because voting by mail brings the ballot to your door, the benefits to voters of all kinds are immense. 

Imagine a mom who needs to take care of her sick son on Election Day and can’t get to the polls, a stay-at-home dad who can’t find childcare for that time, or a voter in a state where there's often ice on the roads in early November. First responders whose schedules can be disrupted, and of course overseas military men and women can all face challenges casting their ballots when their only option is in-person voting. 

How does voting by mail fix our broken elections?

Our elected officials should represent the American people, and voting is one of the most important ways we make our voices heard. If voting isn’t secure and accessible to all eligible voters, we cannot have a government that is truly of, by, and for the people. That’s why voting by mail is a key tool to help unrig the system. 

Giving voters the opportunity to vote by mail consistently boosts voter turnout, making our government better represent the will of the people. 

In the 2018 primaries, universal vote by mail states saw an impressive 15.5% higher turnout than those using traditional polling places. You can even see this trend from county to county. 

In a Utah town split between one county that uses vote by mail and one that doesn’t, one study, after controlling for voter propensity, found turnout jumped by up to 12.5% in the portion of the town using vote at home. This trend seems to be especially true for important but often overlooked local elections. 

Voting by mail is a secure, cost-saving option. 

Paper ballots give a full audit trail and can’t be electronically hacked, making our elections more secure. And without the need to staff as many polling places and maintain and replace hundreds of voting machines, cities and states can save a lot of money

In every election, it’s integral that everybody has the chance to participate — whether we’re facing a pandemic or just juggling childcare. 

The movement to allow more voters to vote from home has been gaining traction in recent years. You can help capitalize on this momentum and bring this needed reform to Americans across America by joining RepresentUs, or becoming a part of our national online volunteer team the Action Brigade.

May 28, 2020

RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.