How Does Voting by Mail Work?

May 25, 2022

The benefits of mail-in voting are broad, providing voting access to those who find it difficult or impossible to travel and ensuring election officials remain in firm control of the validation process.

If you're considering a mail-in ballot option, we'll explain how the system usually works and the various ways to customize your approach.

Is Mail-in Voting Safe?

While a serious threat to democratic fairness, voter fraud is also extremely rare–and there are multiple safeguards available.

The pros and cons of voting by mail include the need to consider the potential for manipulation of absentee ballots, but election officials can proactively reinforce security by:

  • Sending out mail-in ballots only to registered verified voters
  • Ensuring all votes counted are on official documents
  • Requesting identity confirmation (usually via a signature on the return envelope and verifying this matches the voter registration card)
  • Incorporating unique bar codes to avoid duplications

It is improbable that any level of voter fraud will succeed, and a few preventative steps will help ensure election results are properly verified.

How Do Voters Submit a Mail-in Ballot?

States have different regulations, but the typical process works like this:

  1. Election officials assess voter registration information to issue ballots to appropriate people by using Social Security data and birth dates to confirm the legitimacy of records.
  2. Paper ballots are normally dispatched two weeks in advance of an election, with a return envelope and instructions included.
  3. The voter can return their ballot via mail or at a curbside dropbox and must sign the document so it can be approved and counted.
  4. Many ballots have bar codes so that the voter and the election administrators can track the vote through the mail and confirm safe receipt.

Where the election allows ballots to be returned at a dropbox, they are tamper-proof and one-way deposit, with regular collections and clear signage. Drop boxes can be convenient for voters who live in an area where the local postal service is considered less reliable.

Where Can People Vote by Mail?

In the 2020 presidential elections, mail-in votes were available to a record 76% of the voting public–primarily to adhere to pandemic restrictions around travel, social distancing, and transmission risks.

All states allow a proportion of mail-in votes, although some political elections only offer this service on request. Seven states continue to require a justification for requesting an absentee vote (including Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania). Other states automatically mail ballots directly to each voter.

The rules vary, so in some cases, the vote must be received by a specific cut-off date to be counted. In others, the postmark is checked, and any ballots sent by the deadline are considered valid.

However, this applies to public elections, as private elections normally have autonomy about the flexibility offered.

What Is the History of Mail Voting?

Although mail-in ballots have become more popular, they're less of a modern phenomenon than you might imagine. Voting by mail goes back to the mid-19th century when the Civil War meant many younger voters were away from home. 

Voting norms changed again after the 1864 elections when the focus was on privacy protection; previously, votes often required the electorate to place a slip in a colored box or jar, where they made their decision publically.

As our society became more mobile, mail-in votes returned. By the 1970s, every state had some provision for voting by mail, and now Utah, Colorado, and Washington manage votes almost exclusively via this method.

Researching and requesting feedback is a worthwhile exercise if you'd like to ensure your voting systems maximize participation and trust. Many electorates, whether the residents of a city or of a local association, prefer mail-in ballots for the convenience and anonymity they provide.

How Does Voting by Mail Work in Different States?

There are multiple regulations and laws to comply with when organizing a mail-in ballot, such as:

  • Town or city ordinances
  • Bylaws and statutes
  • State regulations
  • Federal legislation
  • Organizational policies

The best way to ensure your vote-by-mail elections are consistent with every applicable rule is to work with an experienced voting systems provider.

ElectionBuddy can cross-check which regulations apply, review any specific policies, and advise on the solutions available, whether you're facilitating votes in-person, online, digitally, or via mail-in ballots–or if you’re using a combination.

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