What is Vote-by-Mail?
Vote-by-mail (VBM) is an umbrella term referring to reforms that increase access to mail ballots, also known as absentee ballots.
States offer a spectrum of options to voters who can’t vote in-person on Election Day, and the accessibility of absentee ballots differs by state. Some states require voters to provide an excuse for voting absentee, like work travel or medical restrictions. Some states don’t require an excuse at all. Some states will allow voters to sign up to automatically receive mail ballots for each election, called a permanent absentee voter list. Eight states, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington, are full vote-by-mail states, meaning every voter receives a ballot in the mail, which can be sent back via mail or dropped off at a ballot drop box. There’s really a continuum of mail ballot access, from most restrictive (excuse required, after an absentee ballot application is requested and submitted) to least restrictive (ballots mailed directly to all registered voters), and bills that move the states along that continuum are tracked in this section.
Even amidst the widespread mail voting disinformation of 2020, the use of vote-by-mail policies has grown and become normalized since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic where mass usage of mail ballots helped not only create the infrastructure for voting by mail, but also introduced more voters and election administrators to the process.
Why are we tracking it?
Election reformers pay attention to mail voting policies because access to ballots is a voting rights issue, and the COVID-19 pandemic revealed to many what voters with disabilities have long known: voting by mail is an essential element of ballot access. In this report, we include bills that change the access of absentee ballots, from the application process to qualifying excuses, to permanent lists and full vote-by-mail. We also highlight bills designed specifically to provide access to absentee ballots for voters with disabilities and older voters. There are many components of the absentee voting process that are not included, but our goal is to track major reform proposals that move states further along the VBM continuum (no excuse, qualifying excuses, permanent absentee list, increased disability access) or restrict access. Pre-canvassing is also included as an important component of the administration of mail ballots.
Categories and definitions:
- Absentee ballot applications: A bill that affects the process for requesting or sending an absentee ballot application. Bills in this category vary from sending notices to all voters about a permanent absentee voting list, to allowing an absentee ballot application for an election to automatically apply to a runoff, to prohibiting state employees from distributing an absentee ballot application without a request.
- Absentee qualifying excuses: A bill that changes or expands the list of qualifying excuses to vote absentee.
- Disability access: A bill that increases access to voting by mail, particularly for voters with disabilities and older voters. This includes a myriad of policies, from polling or mail ballot support at assisted living facilities, to accessible online portals for voters with disabilities to request ballots and information.
- New restrictions: Any bill that creates a substantial new restriction to accessing an absentee ballot. This includes repealing existing pathways for access, or adding hurdles to applying for a mail ballot.
- Full VBM (local): Allows local governments to hold elections entirely by mail, often for ease of access for small or widespread rural populations that would traditionally have to travel long distances to a polling place.
- No-excuse: A bill that allows a voter to vote with an absentee ballot without needing a qualifying excuse.
- Permanent absentee list: A program where voters can register to automatically receive absentee ballots at every election. We include bills that create a permanent absentee voter list, substantially change the process for joining or maintaining the list.
- Pre-canvassing: To improve ballot processing speeds and get faster results, some jurisdictions allow election workers to open envelopes, verify signatures, or even begin scanning ballots into tabulators before polls close on Election Day. This is a practice known as pre-canvassing, or pre-processing35, and we include this category of proposals because they are necessary for supporting other vote-by-mail reforms and help produce faster election results and lessen the burden on election administrators on election night.
States with the most proposals:
We tracked vote-by-mail reforms in 53 bills across 17 states. Three of those bills passed, bringing permanent absentee voter lists to MN and NM and no-excuse absentee voting in CT (pending voter approval next year, since it’s a constitutional amendment requiring voter approval). The CT bill even had bipartisan sponsorship. This is in no way a conclusive list of legislation on the vote-by-mail process, which has a myriad of components that be undermined in discrete ways that are beyond the scope of this project. What’s included are major pieces of legislation that altered vital access points to mail ballots.
➤ Vote-by-Mail by the numbers:
- 6 bills in 5 states (GA, IL, NY, OR, TN) about applications for absentee ballots. All but one (TX H 4753) would’ve increased access to absentee ballot applications. None passed.
- 1 bill introduced by a Republican in a Democratic trifecta state
- 1 bill introduced by a Democrat in a Republican trifecta state
- 3 bills introduced by Democrats (or a democratic majority committee) in a Democratic trifecta state and 1 bill introduced by Republicans in a Republican trifecta state
- Some bills proposed ways to increase access to absentee ballots:
- Allowing an absentee ballot application for a given election serve as an automatic application for a runoff absentee ballot in that election – especially effective in Georgia with the frequent runoffs there (GA S 101)
- Sends a notice to voters about the permanent absentee list, if they aren’t already registered (IL S 1465 and S 2302)
- Sends an absentee ballot application to voters who filed one in the last election, and provides for a permanent absentee ballot application list (NY S 5076)
- Allows county clerks to permit an absentee voter to obtain a ballot at the county clerk’s office (OR H 3109) – notably this proposal comes from a VBM state
- Some proposed ways to limit access to absentee ballot applications:
- TX H 4753 would prohibit officers and employees of a state or political subdivision from distributing an application for an absentee ballot to someone who did not request it
- 6 bills affecting qualifying excuses to vote absentee were introduced in 4 states (NH, NY, TX, WV), all by Democrats, none passed.
- 4 bills introduced in Republican trifecta states, and 2 introduced in a Democratic trifecta state.
- 5 of the bills would add/expand the list of qualifying excuses to vote absentee, including: heath-related (NH H 586 – travel/presence at a polling place is a danger to health), religious observance (NY A 4204), age 65 or older (NY A 5797 and WV H 2811), and work-related travel (TX H 5172)
- One of the bills would require all county commissions to develop emergency absentee voting procedures (WV H 2625)
- 6 bills were introduced in 4 states (NY, OK, TN, TX), which would’ve increased access to absentee ballots for voters with disabilities. Only one passed, but it was ultimately vetoed.
- 5 bills were sponsored by Democrats, 1 bill had bipartisan sponsorship (and was the only bill to pass).
- 1 bill was sponsored by Democrats in a Democratic trifecta state.
- The other 5 bills were introduced in Republican trifecta states, 4 by Democrats and 1 by a bipartisan group of four House members in Texas.
- Some of the ways access would’ve been increased for voters with disabilities under these bills:
- Send a Board of Inspectors to help deliver and complete absentee ballot applications to residents of senior living facilities (NY S 3025)
- Ensure all full-time residents of nursing homes are entitled to vote absentee, regardless of whether or not county officials will appear on site to administer and process votes. (TN S 729 and H 730)
- Create accessible online and mail balloting options and applications for voters with disabilities or who cannot otherwise appear in-person at a polling place (OK H 2344 and TX H 2379 and H 3159)
- 8 bills were introduced in 4 states (AZ, MN, PA, SD) that would’ve introduced new restrictions to accessing absentee ballots. All were introduced by Republicans, and none passed.
- 1 was introduced in a Republican trifecta state, 4 were introduced in a Democratic trifecta state, the other 3 were introduced in divided governments.
- Proposed restrictions included:
- 4 bills filed in Minnesota attempted to add an ID requirement for in-person and absentee voting, and requires those assisting disabled voters to register with an election judge (MN H 573, H 965, H 1188, H 1251)
- 2 bills would’ve repealed no-excuse absentee voting, and required an excuse to qualify for an absentee ballot (AZ H 2231 and SD H 1217)
- 1 bill filed in Pennsylvania would’ve prohibited a permanent absentee list (S 292)
- 1 bill filed in Arizona would’ve ended early and absentee voting altogether (H 2232)
- 3 bills filed in 2 states (MN, NY) would’ve implemented full vote-by-mail. Both bills were introduced by Democrats in Democratic trifecta states, and neither passed.
- The NY proposals (A 4270 and A 190) would provide absentee ballots to all voters.
- The MN proposal (S 1361) would authorize mail balloting in any municipality with fewer than 400 registered voters.
- 9 bills filed in 5 states (AL, NH, NY, TX, WV) that proposed no-excuse absentee voting. All were introduced by Democrats, and none passed.
- 7 bills were introduced in Republican trifecta states, and 1 was introduced in a Democratic trifecta state
- Many of these proposals were paired with other promising reforms like pre-canvassing and electronic application portals. Some also roll back procedural requirements like signature verification and secrecy envelopes, or criminal offenses related to solicitation/distribution of mail ballots.
- 13 bills in 6 states (AZ, CT, GA, MN, NY, OK) proposed implementing a permanent absentee voter list (10 bills) or proposed serious changes to an existing permanent absentee voter list program (3 bills). 4 of these bills passed, and one was vetoed.
- MN, NM, and CT all passed a permanent absentee voter list. The CT bill is a constitutional amendment, so voters will need to pass it on the ballot in 2024. AZ passed a bill that would’ve removed a voter from the permanent list after failing to vote in one general election, but it was subsequently vetoed by Gov. Katie Hobbs.
- 2 bills were introduced by Democrats in Republican trifectas (GA, OK).
- Of the 8 bills introduced in Democratic trifectas (CT, MN, NM, NY), 2 were introduced by a bipartisan coalition, 1 was introduced by a Republican, and the other 5 were introduced by Democrats.
- 3 bills were introduced in a state with a divided government (AZ), two had democratic sponsorship, and 1 had a Republican sponsor.
- There were 2 bills in 2 states (NH, PA) proposing pre-canvassing. Neither passed.
- The New Hampshire bill was introduced by Democrats in the Republican trifecta state
- The Pennsylvania bill (H 1420) was introduced by Republicans in a divided state where Democrats control the office of Governor and the lower chamber of the legislature, and Republicans hold the upper chamber.
There were also some interesting vetoes on bills in this category. The first came out of Arizona when Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed H 2415, which would’ve removed a voter from the permanent absentee voter list after failing to vote in a single general election. Existing law doesn’t remove voters until they fail to vote in two general elections. The other veto happened in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed a bipartisan bill (H 3159) that would’ve created accessible online and mail balloting options for voters who can’t appear in-person at a polling place and need assistance filling out their ballots.
On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic and contentious 2020 election, we continue to see bills attacking access to mail ballots. We tracked 10 bills in 5 states that would’ve seriously harmed existing mail ballot access, from rolling back no-excuse absentee voting and proposing required excuses again (AZ’s H 2231 and SD’s H 1217) to adding an ID requirement for in-person and absentee voting (four bills were introduced in MN on this). Most dramatically, AZ’s H 2232 would’ve ended early and absentee voting. To reiterate, this is in no way a conclusive list of attacks on the vote-by-mail process, just major pieces of legislation that would’ve altered vital access points to mail ballots.
Even amidst the widespread mail voting disinformation of 2020, the use of vote-by-mail policies has grown and become normalized since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic where mass usage of mail ballots helped not only create the infrastructure for voting by mail, but also introduced more voters and election administrators to the process. Compared to pre-pandemic years, the population with access to automatic mail ballot delivery options has doubled, and the population of voters living in places with “excuse-required” mail ballot options shrank by 40%36. This year, there were 16 bills introduced in 6 states that would’ve added to the population of voters receiving ballots automatically. Minnesota’s estimated 4 million voters and New Mexico’s 1.6 million voters are now included in that growing population thanks to reforms passed this past session, and Connecticut voters will get to decide whether to join that group next year on the November ballot.
➤ Full list of Vote-By-Mail bills we tracked
State Bill Number Category sub-category Final Disposition Last Action # of sponsors partisanship
35 Gordon, Hymen-Metzger, et al., Bipartisan Policy Center, Ballot Pre-processing Policies Explained.
36 National Vote at Home Institute, Five years of significant progress for Vote at Home: Statewide mailed-out ballot policies as % of all US voters.