Civics for Citizens: Voting at Home Using Vote-by-Mail and Absentee Voting

Type: Blog
Subject: Civic and Voter Education
By: Andrew Goodman Foundation

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended nearly every aspect of daily life, including how election officials will keep ballots flowing in this historic
election year. While voters need multiple fair, safe, and accessible options, voting at home has quickly become a preferred choice.

For voting at home to be equitable for all voters, we must advocate for free or prepaid postage, postmark dates on or before Election Day, signature-matching reform, and community collection and delivery of sealed ballots.

In addition to concerns of equity, voting at home has raised some confusion about the difference between vote-by-mail and absentee voting. In this installment of Civics for Citizens, we’ll break down these two methods of non-in-person voting, so you can confidently cast your ballot from a safe distance.

What is absentee voting?

Absentee voting in the U.S. has an interesting history stemming back to the Civil War when soldiers cast their ballots from the battlefield. Over the course of the 20th century, lawmakers extended the ability to vote absentee to civilians, including those who were away from their town or city and those with physical disabilities or illnesses.

Today, most states allow you to request an absentee ballot without having an “excuse” or reason why you cannot make it to a polling place on Election Day; however, there are 17 states that do require an excuse. This is where excuse vs. no-excuse absentee voting comes into play—whether or not you need to provide a reason for why you can’t vote in person depends on the state.

What is vote-by-mail?

Vote-by-mail is a process of states automatically sending ballots to eligible voters to complete and return to a dropbox location, election office,
post office, or by putting it in their own mailbox. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington are the only states using this as the default practice, while 21 other states use vote-by-mail for some smaller races. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, several states like Maryland and New Jersey, just to name two, pivoted to conducting their Presidential Primary Elections entirely by vote-by-mail.

What’s the main difference? 

The key distinction is that states practicing vote-by-mail automatically send out a ballot to every eligible voter to complete. On the other hand, absentee voting requires the voter to go through the proper channels to request an absentee ballot on their own and, if necessary, to provide an excuse. Voting absentee requires a two-step process: filling out a request form and then filling out the ballot. While there are instances where someone will be put on a list of absentee voters and continue to receive a ballot for future elections, the main difference between the two lies in who is generally responsible for getting the ballot to the voter.

How do I vote at home in my state?

If you do not live in one of the states that normally votes-by-mail or is offering it amid the COVID-19 pandemic, absentee voting is still a viable option in most states’  upcoming elections to avoid crowds at polling places on Election Day. For the most complete information on your state’s absentee voting rules, consult your Secretary of State’s website or

Be sure to check whether your state requires an excuse to vote absentee and whether the COVID-19 pandemic is considered a valid excuse. (In some worst-case scenarios where a state requires an excuse to vote absentee, like not being present in the city of your assigned polling location, and where COVID-19 is not among a list of valid excuses, it may not be possible to vote absentee. Cases like this are why it’s important to advocate for no-excuse absentee voting or vote-by-mail in all 50 states!)

Some states will allow you to request your ballot online, while others will require you to mail in a ballot request form to request your official ballot. Once your ballot arrives, you can fill it out from the comfort of your own home. Then, you must return your ballot by mailing it back to your Board of Elections or dropping it off at their office. Additionally, ensure you consult your individual state’s deadlines for ballot request forms and ballot return deadlines.

What are the pros and cons of voting at home?

For the average voter, the most obvious pros for mailing in your ballot stem from convenience. Voting at home is convenient for the voter, as they can vote on their own time. If the voter does not understand an issue or does not know a candidate and their positions, the voter can do the proper research as they complete their ballot.

But some may miss the tradition and experience of going to a polling place on Election Day and engaging in the celebration of it.

However, during COVID-19, the biggest advantages that voting at home poses are the abilities to avoid traveling to a polling station, interacting with poll workers and other voters, and touching surfaces others have touched.

How do I know if voting at home is right for me?

The decision to vote in-person or by mail in 2020 may be largely influenced by your state’s laws and how your state responds to COVID-19, so stay up to date on your state’s response. Aside from those considerations, you will want to weigh the infection rate of your county, your age, and your health.

If you choose to vote at home allow plenty of time to receive your ballot and mail it back. And, most importantly, don’t forget to return your ballot!

Think you’re ready to cast your ballot while social distancing or that you might need to in the coming months? Check out your state and local Board of Elections sites to stay up-to-date on voting changes in your community, and help your family and friends understand the key differences! When we’re prepared for whatever comes our way, we can vote with confidence.

About The Authors

Led by graduates of our Andrew Goodman Vote Everywhere program, the Alumni Association promotes the spirit of involvement and participation amongst all alumni. Click here to learn more about the Alumni Association.


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