Mail-In Vs. Absentee Ballots Explained

September 8, 2020

Do you understand the difference between a mail-in ballot and an absentee ballot?

A few weeks ago we asked if people understood the differences between mail-in and absentee ballots.

60% of respondents weren’t sure what those differences were.

Fortunately, the American Government Explained In ASL has an explanation in ASL!

Video Description

Jay is wearing a purple polo and standing in front of a black background.


Jay Krieger, an older man with glasses and a purple button-down shirt, stands in front of a black background. His message is in American Sign Language.]

Nowadays, something I have noticed showing up over and over again are absentee ballots and mail-in ballots. What’s the difference between the two? I did some research, gathered some information, most of which was from the Washington Post that thoroughly explained the two, and I’d like to share what I found.

Now, I know there is still some confusion. Some are still wondering what the differences are, how the process of the ballots differ, but the bottom line is they are basically the same. Some states prefer to call it one name rather than the other. But, the point is that absentee ballots and mail-in ballots work hand-in-hand by way of mail. We use mail to receive the absentee ballot and then to send in the absentee ballot.

Universal mail-in voting is a little bit different. Currently, some politicians have their concerns, but we’ll expand more on that later in this vlog.

No matter what your state calls it, the point of these ballots is that they are sent to you through the mail, and sent back through the mail. They always, always verify ballots when counting, always, and by each state.

Let’s analyze the process of each ballot. The term ‘absentee ballot’ has a lot of history behind it. It’s described as this, a person is unable to go to the voting place. The voting place sends the ballot to the individual. That’s how the process has been for quite some time. The reason this process was started is because people physically cannot go to their polling place on election day. They let the polling place know that they would like to make a request to send in their vote by mail. The concept of an absentee ballot started during the Civil War.

Long ago, soldiers from different states were enlisted into the military and were sent away far from home, they were unable to vote. So, they used the absentee ballot. They voted and then sent their ballot back to their home state.

Fast forward to now and many different states have started expanding the use of the absentee ballot. Many ballots are sent to people, that way everyone has access to vote. Some people may have a disability, some people may be faced with an emergency situation, maybe they need to go to the hospital, they could have jury duty, even being an astronaut in space, you can still receive an absentee ballot! It’s happened before.

That group of people, who are unable to physically go to their polling place and vote, are referred to as ‘excused’ absentee votes. There are different criteria for why you may be an excused absentee voter, and if that applies to you, you can use this option.

Now, absentee ballots are very common. Currently, a total of 34 states use them, including D.C. Any voter can request an absentee ballot, even if they are physically able to vote at the polling place. This kind of vote is called ‘no-excuse’ absentee voting. They don’t need to have a reason or an excuse for an absentee ballot. This is available in 34 states, no reasoning required. However, those remaining states still do require reasoning for absentee voting.

These previously strict rules for reasoning have become a little flexible now because of COVID-19. This global pandemic has left voters afraid to physically go in to vote, risking the contraction of the virus. That is an approved reason for an absentee ballot, and other states are approving it as well.

The absentee ballot has definitely evolved. Election officials started changing the name of the ballot. Some refer to it as an advanced ballot, send-mail ballot, vote-by-mail ballot, mail ballot…while the names may change, the concept remains the same.

Some states prefer to call it ‘mail-in vote’ instead of an absentee ballot, because voters mail their absentee ballot whether they are in town or actually absent. It is still mailed, so instead of ‘absentee’, ‘mail-in’ feels more accurate.

If you’re wondering why there are so many different names, it’s because there is no centralized election system. No one federal organization is operating this. The federal government announced that each state will be handling elections on their own. Each state had to set up their own rules from history, and how they run elections is up to them. That’s the reason for such a variety of names. Each state’s rules, regulations, and relations vary. Since it’s become so popular, some call it ‘voting out of the voting place,’ to cover all of those different terms. But, really, the point is that each state uses the same system. The ballot is sent to the voter through the mail, that’s it. The voter can physically hand in their ballot, they don’t have to send it back through the mail. It depends on the state. When voters get an absentee ballot, the voter can determine if they’re going to walk to a mailbox to mail it, they can mail it in a special, secured voting mailbox, or they can just turn it in by hand at a local election office, not the election area, the election office.

Some states can send the ballot through the mail, but the voter decides they would rather vote in person. So, because the voter voted in person, their absentee ballot is null.


Now, let’s shift topics. Recently, a new term has been popping up: ‘Universal vote-by-mail.’ Absentee ballots are sent all over the place? Is that safe? Are there less ballots? Here’s what this kind means; the voting office mails out the election mailing form, the voters receive the papers, fill them out, and send them back. Rather than requesting an absentee ballot or mail-in, I would have to make a request, referred to as ‘mail-by-request.’ With universal vote-by-mail, you don’t need to make a request. The forms will be sent out to all voters. That is a lot of ballots to be sent out, wow.

So far, five states are 100% using mail only. No in-person voting, only mail. The five states are Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah. These states have been 100% mail only for quite some time. This means that all people who are qualified, registered voters will receive an election form. Doesn’t matter if a request was not made, the ballots will automatically be sent out. You can fill out your ballot and then send it in or you can drop it off at a specific location. Follow the rules of your state.

Three other states, California, Nebraska, and North Dakota, have not yet made a unified decision on how to hold their elections. Those states allow the counties to decide.

17 states allow certain elections to be done completely through mail, no need for in-person. Either for the whole election or just some of the election will be done entirely through mail.

This is not a recent thing! This has been going on for years and years. A very precise, strict set of rules has been established for the process of these documents. When the ballots are received they must go through a strict process of being verified and counted.

When the voter receives their ballot there are specific instructions that guide the voter step-by-step on how to complete the ballot. It instructs how to send the ballot back, how to sign, how to have an eye witness, an affidavit, and so on. The instructions will guide the voter on what to do.

The election official receives the ballots and looks at the document, which is verified against your signatures such as on your driver’s license. Many states have a barcode that is specific to each election. That way, the documents can’t be used more than once. The Washington Post gathered information from three states that use universal mail elections, and after doing some research, it was discovered that there is a rare possibility of being able to skew the election or commit fraud. Again, it’s very rare.

Now, with the spread of COVID-19, many states are now wanting to do elections by mail to lessen the spread. So far, California, Nevada, Vermont, New Jersey, and Washington D.C., have decided to do their election via mail. Just remember, all mail-in votes, all types of ballots, are always checked and looked over before being counted. Again, all three types of ballots must be verified.

[Video ends.]

SignVote alternative logo signing vote in ASL with one hand blue and the other hand red.

About SignVote

Our mission is to inform and engage deaf communities about elections by developing and sharing resources in ASL.

SignVote alternative logo signing vote in ASL with one hand blue and the other hand red.

About SignVote

Our mission is to inform and engage deaf communities about elections by developing and sharing resources in ASL.

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