Politics2020 Election


Vote Smarter 2020: Difference In Voting By Mail And Voting Absentee

Newsy's Vote Smarter 2020 aims to provide you with all the information you'll need to safely and successfully cast your ballot this year.
Posted at 4:59 PM, Sep 28, 2020

What’s the difference between voting by mail and voting absentee?

"There is no real distinction between voting by mail and voting absentee. The terminology across the country on many elections issues varies widely," said Matthew Weil, the director of the Election Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. 

Historically, the word absentee was used to describe voters who were unable to vote on Election Day. 

"Because you were out of town or you couldn't be at the polls on Election Day, you were ill, and so you had some excuse for voting and you were going to be absentee, you were going to be absent," said Lonna Atkeson, the director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy at the University of New Mexico.

Nowadays, the term absentee voting is frequently used to describe voting by mail — when a ballot is mailed to a voter's house, they fill it out, and send it back. 

"They're all the same thing. Different politicians in different states use different words [and] say some are good, some are bad. Remote ballot, absentee ballot, mail ballot — they're all the same thing," said David Hawkings, the editor in chief of The Fulcrum.

There is one exception this year in Missouri. The state is using absentee voting for people who would be traditionally available to vote outside the polling place, so someone with an illness or disability or someone who will be out of town. Mail-in voting is available for everyone else who doesn't have a valid excuse. But even in Missouri, the end process is still the same. 

"Functionally, the way they're treated by election officials does not vary," said Weil.