CHICAGO, Ill. – In 2016, some 33 million ballots were cast by mail, about one quarter of all votes cast. With pandemic protocols and precautions in place, experts estimate a record-breaking number of mail-in votes this election cycle.
Voting by mail has been in place for more than 150 years – since the Civil War.
“It's become so common in the United States that since 2010, about a quarter of the electorate has voted by mail in federal elections,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice.
Some states have what’s known as a universal vote-by-mail system, which means they mail ballots to all their voters. But in most states, voters must request an absentee ballot.
“Most of them have made exceptions for 2020, because of COVID and so what we have left is only a handful of states where you need an excuse to vote by mail,” said Norden.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, normally 34 states and Washington, D.C. allow no-excuse absentee/mailed ballot voting. Those include: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Five automatically mail ballots to voters: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. And specifically, for 2020, at least four more have done the same: California, New Jersey, Nevada, and Vermont.
For months, President Donald Trump has claiming that mail-in voting leads to mass fraud.
“The mailed ballots are corrupt, in my opinion. And they collect them, and they get people to go in and sign them. And then they — they’re forgeries in many cases. It’s a horrible thing,” he said to reporters in April.
Experts say that’s not true. While there have been a few examples of fraud committed in mail voting, in modern history, studies indicate it’s not common at all.
“The chances of somebody committing fraud in mail voting is about the same as somebody getting struck by lightning,” said Norden. “It's extremely rare.”
Rejection is more common.
According to the Brennan Center, during the midterm elections, nationwide more than 430,000 mailed ballots were rejected due to delays, minor defects, and voter errors. In some states, rejected ballots affected minorities at higher rates than white voters.
Norden recommends voting as early as possible when using a mail-in or absentee ballot.
“Do it early, so you can avoid the kind of last-minute complications that sometimes we've seen,” he said. “The number one reason that mail ballots don't count is because people get them in late.”
Even with the vote-by-mail expansion, there are still variations in deadlines and rules. Experts say it’s also important to make sure you follow your state’s specific requirements.