What you need to know about mail-in voting


The 2020 election will be unprecedented. It will occur during a pandemic, and traditional in-person voting will likely remain unsafe for  much of the public come November. 

Mail-in voting presents a viable solution, but with concerns ranging from fraud to issues with the postal service, the system is far from problem free. When it comes to voting by mail, which fears are justified and which are overblown? We will clarify top concerns below and cover some voting by mail pros and cons.

How does mail-in voting work?

Voting by mail is far from new. The practice originated in times of war:

  • Retired Navy captain Donald Inbody told NBC News, “Some part of the military has been voting absentee since the American Revolution.”
  • During the Civil War, the first widespread use of the practice allowed 150,000 Union soldiers to cast their votes away from home. This system was just as controversial then as it is now — especially among Democrats of the time, who regarded it as a scheme to re-elect Abraham Lincoln. 
  • Mail-in voting endured, however, and all soldiers were allowed to vote remotely during World War II. In 1944, soldiers voting from afar represented 7 percent of total votes cast.

Today, two separate voting processes involve the mail:

  1. Absentee ballots in all states let people who are physically incapable of voting in-person cast a ballot.
  2. With mail-in systems, all residents receive absentee or similar applications. People do not need to proactively request them or verify the reasons for their use.

How vote-by-mail differs between states

Mail-in voting is decentralized, meaning each state gets to determine how to handle the process.

Several states currently operate on an exclusively mail-in basis:

  • Oregon initiated the mail-in approach a full two decades ago.
  • Washington relies on an advanced security system involving serial numbers, GPS tracking, and special seals. The state also maintains strict protocols for emptying ballot boxes. 
  • Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii also operate on a mail-in basis. 

Absentee ballot procedures also vary from state to state. In some places, absentee voters must provide a valid reason for not voting in person, such as illness or temporary residence in another state. But more than half of the states now allow for “no-excuse absentee balloting,” in which any voter can request an absentee ballot.

In light of the pandemic, several states will extend access to voting through the mail, whether by removing the need for absentee excuses or planning for a primarily vote-by-mail election.

Legal concerns surrounding vote-by-mail

Voting by mail may improve convenience and limit coronavirus transmission, but it comes with notable legal drawbacks. While many skeptics worry about fraud, the more prescient issue may involve an increased potential for litigation. Even the most advanced mail-in procedures can be prone to mishaps that rarely occur with in-person voting. These open the door to drawn-out legal battles.

Federal litigation related to Wisconsin’s recent primary election helps shed light on the role of the legal system in mail-in voting. In Wisconsin, organizations such as Disability Rights Wisconsin and Black Leaders Organizing for Communities filed lawsuits in hopes of ensuring future voters full access to absentee ballots. Three women involved in the Wisconsin case claim that they faced undue hardship during the April 7 primary. 

Wisconsin plaintiffs are advocating for measures such as sending all registered voters absentee ballot request forms and maintaining secure absentee ballot boxes. Without these measures, they believe that the upcoming election will violate not only the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Voting Rights Act, but even the U.S. Constitution.

Wisconsin is far from the only legal battleground in the vote-by-mail debate. In Florida, state authorities and organizations such as Dream Defenders and Priorities USA reached a settlement in July. The plaintiffs sought sweeping changes to the state’s vote-by-mail process, including free ballot postage and extended deadlines for returning mail-in ballots. The case also challenged Florida restrictions on the ability of paid workers to collect mail-in ballots. 

While many current legal efforts aim to expand access to mail-in voting, several challenges exist on the other side of the aisle. Backed by a joint Trump campaign of $20 million, the Republican National Committee has launched litigation in over a dozen states. For example, in Iowa, a recent lawsuit challenged a local practice in which absentee ballot applications are filled in with identifying information before they’re sent to voters. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege that county auditors are “throwing out important voter integrity safeguards.”

The status of mail-in voting will continue to evolve as the election approaches. Between legislation and lawsuits, voters could see sweeping reforms in the next few months — and permanent shifts in how we conduct elections. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial that every voter researches local protocol and casts ballots accordingly.