The National Vote-By-Mail Landscape

Context:  Vote by mail (VBM), sometimes called absentee voting or vote at home, describes systems under which election officials mail ballots directly to some or all registered voters. There are many permutations of vote by mail. Five states have adopted all-mail elections in which ballots are automatically mailed to all registered voters, and voters can typically return their ballot by mail or in person at a vote center or drop box during a designated early voting period through election day. In response to COVID-19, 13 states have enacted legislation that allows mail-in ballot applications to be sent to all registered voters. Vote centers and polling places may also be available for voters who prefer to vote in person. Other states either allow individual voters to register to vote by mail on a permanent basis for all elections or require an application to vote by mail for each election. Some states make absentee voting available only with an excuse defined by law and others do not require any excuse. And some states temporarily have adapted their vote-by-mail rules in response to COVID-19 (such responses are discussed in the next section). This section contains resources that provide overviews of the many types of vote-by-mail systems, as well as information specific to some of the distinct permutations.  

Types of Vote by Mail and Variations Across States

  • “Changes to absentee/mail-in voting procedures in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, 2020,” Ballotpedia (provides state-by-state information regarding updated vote-by-mail procedures due to COVID-19, delineates each state’s permanent mail-in voting system and their mechanisms for change, and outlines the vote-by-mail debate).  Link
  • “Vote @ Home Intro Flyer: Higher Turnout, Highly Secure, Lower Cost,” National Vote At Home Institute (four-page overview of types of vote by mail, which states implement which, best practices, voter turnout, and costs).  Link 
  • “Voting by Mail and Absentee Voting,” MIT Election Lab (historical overview, the Oregon system, impact on turnout and fraud).  Link 
  • Absentee Voting, (overview of absentee voting including which states have it, which states require excuses, arguments pro and con).  Link
  • “The Race to Change How America Votes,” Axios (vote-at-home rules by state).  Link
  • “Voting Outside the Polling Place: Absentee, All-Mail and other Voting at Home Options,” National Conference of State Legislators (comprehensive overview of absentee voting considerations including possible advantages and disadvantages, and many issues regarding qualifying for an absentee ballot).  Link 
  • “Voting By Mail / Absentee Voting,” US Election Assistance Commission (COVID-19 specific and other resources to help election officials identify procedures, strategies, and policies for ensuring mail ballots get delivered in a timely manner, cast and counted. Includes a series of video presentations regarding strategies for handling increased demand of vote by mail).  Link 
  • “Vote at Home Policy Actions: COVID-19 Response,” National Vote At Home Institute, May 2020 (“A comprehensive analysis of existing vote at home state policy and urgent policy changes necessary to support safe voting in 2020”).  Link 

Rates of Mail Voting

  • “2018 general election mailed-ballot use by state graphic,” National Vote at Home Institute (bar graph of the percentage of ballots cast via mail-in ballot by state in the 2018 election).  Link
  • “How use of mailed out ballots varies by region since 1996,” National Vote at Home Institute (line graph of the percentage of ballots cast via mail-in ballot by region from 1996-2018).  Link
  • “Western states 2018 vote from mailed ballots,” National Vote at Home Institute (spreadsheet of the percentage of ballots cast via mail-in ballot in western states in the 2018 election).  Link
  • “Most Voters Have Positive Views of Their Midterm Voting Experiences,” Pew Research Center (briefly describes the percentage of voters who cast mail-in ballots by age, political affiliation, and region in the 2018 election).  Link

Excuse-Required and No-Excuse-Required Vote by Mail

  • “Qualifying for An Absentee Ballot” tab on “Voting Outside the Polling Place:  Absentee, All-Mail and other Voting at Home Options,” National Conference of State Legislators (includes (i) the list of states that do not require an excuse to vote absentee or by mail, (ii) excuses to vote absentee in states that do require an excuse, (iii) discussion of who qualifies for permanent absentee ballot status and (iv) how and when voters are removed from a permanent absentee list).  Link 
  • Table 1 “States with No-Excuse Absentee Voting,” National Conference of State Legislators (list of states with no-excuse absentee voting and corresponding state statutes).  Link
  • Absentee Voting, (list of excuse-required and no-excuse required states, and a map that reveals applicable state rules and, where applicable, the permitted excuses).  Link
  • “Covid-19 Should Be a Legitimate “Excuse” to Vote by Mail,” Brennan Center (reviews state-by-state approach to whether Covid-19 qualifies as an “excuse” to vote absentee in the 16 states that require an excuse, and argues it should qualify in all 16).  Link

All-Mail Elections


  • “All-Mail Elections (aka Vote-By-Mail),” National Conference of State Legislators (a summary of how all-mail elections work, advantages and disadvantages, and a list and summary of state statutes governing all-mail elections (including various permutations)).  Link 
  • “All-Mail Voting,” (background, overview of states that have adopted all-mail voting permanently and in response to COVID-19, arguments pro and con of all-mail voting).  Link 
  • Summary of the Colorado, Oregon and Washington All-Mail Voting Statutes, National Conference of State Legislators (see chart on bottom of page called “States with All-Mail Voting”).  Link  
  • “Vote by Mail Procedures Manual,”  Oregon Elections Division, March 2020 (88-page internal manual covering every detail of Oregon’s all vote-by-mail election procedures).  Link
  • “Colorado Voting Reforms, Early Results,” Pew Charitable Trust, March 2016 (research report assessing impact of all-mail elections in Colorado showing decreased costs, drastic reduction in provisional ballots, and high use of in-person return of ballot options).  Link
  • Timeline of Oregon’s Adoption of All Vote by Mail, Oregon Secretary of StateLink 

Vote Centers

  • “What is a Vote Center?” OC Vote Center, 2020 (overview of vote centers and considerations such as proximity to public transportation, proximity to communities with low vote by mail usage, proximity to Limited-English Proficient (LEP) communities, disability communities).  Link
  • Information about the vote center model, National Conference of State Legislatures, 2020 (overview of vote center model).  Link
  • “Preparing for an election under pandemic conditions,” Brennan Center, 2020 (chart regarding state vote by mail laws, information about how poll closures, vote centers and states that expand VBM might affect LEP voters).  Link
  • Training Document for Voting Centers, Center for Civic Design, 2020 (tasks for voting center workers divided by time of day and roll).  Link
  • “Vote Centers and Polling Places Survival Guide,” Center for Civic Design, 2020 (powerpoint and flashcards used to train vote center workers for election day).  Link 
  • Vote Center Siting Tool for the California Voter's Choice Act,” California Civic Engagement Project (mapping tool to provide assistance to California county election offices seeking to locate vote centers to implement the Voter's Choice Act. The goal of this tool is to help election officials identify optimal sites for potential Vote Center and Vote-by-Mail drop boxes).  Link

The Debate:  A Few Example Op-Eds On Vote by Mail

In Favor 

  • “Democratic vote-by-mail efforts would actually help rural (and Trump) voters,” Washington Post (argues that rural voters, who tend to be older, would benefit most from expanding vote by mail).  Link
  • “Voting by Mail Is Crucial for Democracy,” The New York Times, August 2020 (expresses support for expanded mail-in voting in the midst of COVID-19 and makes three central recommendations to support this system: combating misinformation about voting by mail, enhancing voter education, and protecting in-person voting options). Link
  • “In the Pandemic, Every State Should Vote by Mail,” The Atlantic (argues that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, universal vote-by-mail is essential to health and safety).  Link
  • “The 2020 Election Won’t Look Like Any We’ve Seen Before,” The New York Times, March 21, 2020 (details the successes of existing vote-by-mail systems, advocates for broad implementation during the November election, and details potential solutions for addressing potential vulnerabilities and process shortfalls).  Link
  • “How to Save Elections From a Pandemic,” The Washington Monthly, Q2 2020 (details Utah’s experience with vote by mail to illustrate the merit of widely accessible vote by mail).  Link
  • “We Should Never Have to Vote in Person Again,” The New York Times (details (i) recent research showing that vote by mail increases turnout in nearly every demographic group, and (ii) Colorado’s experience with vote by mail to advocate for the permanent implementation of broadly accessible vote by mail in all 50 states).  Link
  • “Opinion: Trump is wrong about the dangers of absentee ballots,” Richard L. Hasen, The Washington Post, April 2020 (argues that mail-in balloting poses minimal risk of fraud, and outlines policies states can adopt to further minimize risk).  Link


  • “Widespread voting by mail poses risks of disenfranchising voters, delaying election results,” USA Today (explores potential for fraud, disenfranchisement, and coercion within the vote-by-mail system and makes claims against feasibility).  Link
  • “Opinion: Trump’s concern about mail-in ballots is completely legitimate,” Marc A. Thiessen, The Washington Post, May 28, 2020 (discusses the risks associated with implementing large-scale mail-in voting in 2020, including lost and rejected ballots, less confidence in outcomes, and lack of state preparedness).  Link
  • “Potential for Fraud Is Why Mail-In Elections Should Be Dead Letter,”  Hans A. von Spakovsky, Heritage Foundation, April 10, 2020 (argues mail-voting increases risks of fraud)  Link

Weighing Benefits and Risks

  • “As States Struggle With Vote-By-Mail, ‘Many Thousands, If Not Millions’ Of Ballots Could Go Uncounted in November,” The Intercept (analyzes potential pitfalls of vote-by-mail, including possibility for widespread ballot rejection; includes data on the rates of ballot rejection in 2016; addresses potential supply chain issues).  Link
  • “Why is Voting By Mail (Suddenly) Controversial? Here’s What You Need to Know,” NPR (provides overview of national vote-by-mail debate with discussion of public opinion, political controversy, fraud claims, and feasibility).  Link
  • “Opinion: Mail Voting Gone Wrong–Again,” The Wall Street Journal (outlines potential for fraud and ballot rejection using New Jersey’s recently implemented vote-by-mail system as a case study and argues that the system can fuel concerns of an illegitimate election).  Link
  • “To Protect Democracy, Expand Vote by Mail,” Brennan Center For Justice June 2020 (provides an analysis of necessary measures to ensure an effective expansion of vote-by-mail while recognizing the importance of in-person voting). Link
  • “More voting by mail would make the 2020 election safer for our health. But it comes with risks of its own,” Barry Burden, Robert M. Stein, and Charles Stewart III, The Washington Post, April 6, 2020 (discusses obstacles to expanding vote by mail in time for the November elections).  Link
  • “Voting by Mail Would Reduce Coronavirus Transmission but It Has Other Risks,” Jessica Huseman, ProPublica, March 24, 2020 (highlights the challenges to scaling up vote by mail in a short timeframe).  Link
  • Why Vote-by-Mail Could be a Legal Nightmare in November,” Edward B. Foley, Politico, April 7, 2020 (contends expansion of absentee voting has benefits but is also likely to result in vote-counting disputes this fall). Link