Absentee ballots gained newfound popularity, and criticism, in 2020 after they became a vital tool for conducting a presidential election during a pandemic. According to Bob Stein, director of the Center for Civic Leadership at Rice University, the first widespread use of absentee ballots was during the American Civil War, when the Union allowed soldiers to cast ballots for President Abraham Lincoln from the battlefield.
Absentee voting was used by service members overseas for many decades before access to vote-by-mail was expanded at the state-level in the 1970s. In 1974, Washington state became the first state to offer no-excuse absentee voting and was soon followed by California and other western states.
Today, in 2022, there are 27 states that allow voters to request absentee ballots without providing an excuse or reason that they can’t vote in person. An additional eight states conduct elections entirely by mail, and voters do not need to request a ballot. The remaining 15 states have state-specific laws regarding absentee ballots and require voters to provide an acceptable excuse for why they can’t vote in person.
The 2020 presidential election had the highest vote-by-mail turnout of any election to date with 46% of all ballots being submitted this way (according to research by FiveThirtyEight).
Even if the percentage of all voters who vote-by-mail decreases, it is likely that the rate will continue to be above pre-2020 levels.
During the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions, the states passed 33 laws that we have identified as pertaining specifically to absentee or vote-by-mail voting. Some states have increased penalties for voter fraud, reduced the length of time for submission of ballots, or placed greater restrictions on the distribution of ballots in an attempt to curtail election fraud.
Laws regarding absentee voting passed during 2021 and 2022 are organized below by state. Click the links under your state to see how absentee voting will be different from 2020 in the upcoming general election.
Note: Locations of bills on the map WITHIN a state are NOT significant; all bills are applicable statewide.
Requires Voters' Signatures on Absentee Ballots Match the Signature from Their Voter Registration Application
Limits the Time Frame for Absentee Ballot Applications to be Received
Prohibits Absentee Ballots from Revealing Political Party Affiliation
Establishes Guidelines for the Time Voters Have to Fix Signatures on Ballots
Authorizes a Voter with a Disability to Print the Ballot or Return the Ballot by Electronic Transmission
Establishes Restrictions on Providing Assistance in Returning a Voter's Mail Ballot
Requires an In Person Early Voting Period for Certain Elections
Authorizes County Board of Elections to Determine the Location of Certain Ballot Drop Boxes
Amends the Deadlines for the Mailing and Receipt of Absentee Ballots from the Day Before the Election to Election Day
Authorizes the Board of Elections to Accept an Electronic Application for an Absentee Ballot when Submitted by a Voter
Authorizes a Write-in Ballot Cast in a Party Primary to Petition for a Candidate Not Enrolled in Such Party to be Void and Not Counted
Authorizes the General Registrar to Contract with a Third Party for the Printing, Assembly, and Mailing of Absentee Ballots
Rescinds the Mandate for a Witness Signature on Absentee Ballots
Authorizes the Electoral Board or General Registrar of a County or City to Provide Absentee Voting
Authorizes Absentee Ballot Processing Before Election Day and Establishes Election Result Sharing as a Felony
This was written by Katie Thompson and Ashley Peldiak. Katie is the director of Officials Research at Vote Smart, with a degree in political science and sociology from Iowa State University and a specialization in demography. Ashley is a communications associate at Vote Smart, with a degree in English and experience creating and editing content for various mediums including social media.