How to Vote By Mail in the 2020 Election

A cloth face mask on top of an absentee ballot envelope
Tiffany Tertipes

Voting by mail has been around for decades in the U.S. and should prove more important in this year’s election. In 2016 roughly 20 percent of voters in the presidential election cast their ballots by mail, more than ever before according to Pew Research. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, that record high should increase again.

Some states already allow all citizens to vote by mail, and most have expanded their mail voting programs this year. In-person primary elections this year have shown that physically voting can lead to increased infections, and delay an already lengthy process for many voters.

While there is some disagreement, most experts agree that mail-in voting is safe, secure, and smart this year.

Voting by Mail Explained

The likelihood that you’ve ever voted by mail depends heavily on where you live. Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah – mail every citizen a ballot and allow them to mail in their votes. Nearly 90 percent of voters across those five states utilized their mail ballot.

Although every state does offer voting by mail, some are more restrictive than others. For instance, 16 states allow for mail and absentee voting, but voters must have a valid excuse as to why they cannot cast a physical ballot. An average of just five percent of voters in those states ended up submitting a mail-in ballot in 2016. The remaining 29 states allow citizens to request mail ballots without any reason needed. Roughly 20 percent of those states’ voters cast by mail.

All of this is to say that while voting by mail will be more prominent this year, it’s not a new development. 11 of the 16 states that require excuses to vote by mail have eased their restrictions for this election cycle, so we should see more Americans utilize their right to vote by mail more than ever.

How to Vote By Mail

As mentioned, most states have different plans for mail-in voting. If you live in one of the states that automatically mail you a ballot, all you need to do is fill it out and mail it back to cast your vote. If you live in one of the other 45 states, the process may not be so easy. If you have questions about how to vote by mail in your state, you can look up your state’s election website and read up.

In the 29 states that offer no-excuse mail voting, you’ll likely need to fill out a simple application to receive your ballot. In states where you must provide a reason to vote by mail, the process can be a bit more hands-on. Some states let you apply for an absentee ballot online, and others will mail you an application that you must fill out and return to get your ballot. Because it’s not always a quick process, it’s a good idea to apply as early as possible.

One potential hiccup for voting by mail has popped up in recent weeks, as President Donald J. Trump has expressed his disdain for the practice, and the United States Postal Service. Trump openly admitted on Fox Business Network that he is refusing to allow additional funding to the USPS in stimulus deals because without money the agency cannot support the volume of nationwide voting by mail. The legality of Trump’s actions has been called into question, but it remains to be seen if the USPS will get financial aid. 

Is Voting By Mail Safe?

Some people, including President Donald J. Trump, have said that voting by mail leads to voter fraud and could seriously disrupt the 2020 election. This is, according to election experts and data on the topic, a flat out falsehood. There is currently no evidence to suggest that mail-in voting increased voter fraud in any statistically significant way. In fact, Trump himself voted by mail as president in 2017, and recently encouraged Florida voters to submit via mail. 

More than 250 million mail-in ballots have been cast since the practice was popularized in the 1990s. According to the Heritage Foundation, which tracks voter fraud, only 208 Americans have been charged with fraudulently voting by mail since 1988. That’s 0.0000832 percent of all mail-in ballots.

The Bottom Line

Voting by mail will be far from universal in 2020, but it will be more widespread. Nobody knows for sure what the state of the pandemic will be in November, but overall it’s a positive thing that more states have expanded their vote by mail programs. More voters will be able to exercise their right to vote, and millions can do it safely from their homes.

Long lines, closed polling locations and faulty voting machines already plague physical in-person voting. While not a perfect process, voting by mail can help alleviate some of these issues and get more Americans engaged in the democratic process.