WASHINGTON - As many voters will likely turn to mail-in voting this November as a safety precaution amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked voting by mail as a less secure process than absentee voting.
The result has led to confusion about the two terms and whether or not there is a difference.
"With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history," Trump wrote July 30 on Twitter.
But experts say the terms are often used interchangeably — it varies by state. And regardless of whether it’s called “absentee voting” or “mail-in voting,” all ballots delivered to voters by mail are subject to that state’s verification requirements before going into the official count.
“What one jurisdiction calls ‘absentee,’ it will be called ‘vote by mail’ or ‘mail-in voting’ in a different jurisdiction. And there’s no universal definition,” Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub with the Federal Election Commission explained.
Where do the terms ‘absentee’ and ‘mail-in’ come from?
Historically, the term “absentee ballot” has referred to a ballot that has been sent to a voter outside of a polling place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). It comes from the concept that voters would use the option only when they were “absent” from their local polling station on Election Day.
Absentee voting first started during the Civil War, giving soldiers the opportunity to cast their ballots in their home states.
Over time, more voters have requested a ballot in advance as their preferred voting method. As more states began offering the ability to vote absentee, the terminology has evolved, too.
Some states refer to the practice as “advance ballots,” “mailed ballots,” “by-mail ballots,” “mail ballots” or “vote-by-mail ballots,” according to the NCSL.
Today, 34 U.S. states allow voters to request a mail-in ballot without needing a reason, typically called “no excuse absentee voting.” This includes Florida, where Trump has voted by mail in past elections. Trump and his wife also requested mail-in ballots for Florida’s primary election this year, despite weeks of criticizing the practice.
Ballots were mailed on July 12 to both the president and First lady Melania Trump at the Mar-a-Lago resort, which Trump lists as his legal address, according to online Palm Beach County elections records. Both previously voted by mail for the presidential preference primary in March, according to records.
“Most people do not differentiate between vote-by-mail and absentee voting. They think it is the same thing,” Weintraub said. “They use the terms interchangeably because absentee ballots are certainly delivered to the voter by mail, and are often delivered back to election headquarters by mail, which is why a lot of people call it voting by mail.”
“However, it is also absentee. You’re not physically going in and standing in line and voting in your polling place,” she added.
How mail voting varies by state
A number of states have expanded access to mail-in voting due concerns about voting in person during the pandemic. More than 180 million eligible voters in America will be able to cast their ballot by mail, according to data compiled Aug. 14 by the Washington Post.
Nine states and the District of Columbia will automatically send ballots to registered voters for the November election, sometimes referred to as “universal mail voting.”
Five of those states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — already held elections by mail even before the COVID-19 outbreak. California, Nevada, New Jersey, Vermont and the District have all opted to proactively send ballots to voters this year in response to COVID-19.
Trump has repeated the unfounded claim that “universal mail voting” could corrupt the election. But top election officials and research on the subject has found that incidents of voter fraud are “very, very low.”
Kim Wyman, the secretary of state of Washington, is a Republican who oversees her state’s entirely mail-in voting process — which has been the default for a decade.
Washington has not seen “any kind of rampant fraud in my 27 years of doing elections,” Wyman said.
The vast majority of U.S. states give voters the right to request a mail-in ballot without an excuse, or they will allow voters to cite fear of becoming infected with the novel coronavirus as an excuse.
There are still seven states that require an excuse beyond COVID-19 to vote via mail, such as an illness or travel.
Why so many different terms?
Election officials and experts agree: Don’t get stuck on the terms. Each state is allowed to set its own voting rules — and if they want, their own terminology.
“This is really an issue related to how state legislatures and their laws label things,” said David Becker, founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.
The U.S. has a highly decentralized election system, where many of the functions of running an election are typically on the county or city level, according to the NCSL. It means that no one state conducts elections in exactly the same way as another, and there can even be variations in election administration within states.
“One jurisdiction wants to call it absentee and another jurisdiction wants to call it vote by mail, and they’re talking about the exact same thing. They’re allowed to do that,” Weintraub said.
“It does create confusion, and I think that part of the confusion stems from public figures who are trying to put forward this narrative that there’s a big distinction between absentee and mail-in voting, when there really isn’t,” she added.
Ballots all face same level of scrutiny
Whether they’re referred to as “absentee” or “mail-in,” experts say all ballots are subject to that state’s verification methods and face the same level of scrutiny.
After multiple claims that mail-in voting would lead to voter fraud, Trump on Aug. 4 seemed to have modified his stance on the subject and touted Florida’s mail-in voting process on Twitter.
“Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting, in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True,” Trump wrote. “Florida’s Voting system has been cleaned up (we defeated Democrats attempts at change), so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail!”
While Florida runs “very good elections,” Becker said the process in all states is essentially the same. All ballots are subject to a number of safeguards to protect the authenticity, such as a signature that is later validated against the voter’s signature on file.
The look of ballots may vary by location because there are different races across different jurisdictions and various levels of technology used in the election process.
“Some ballots are larger, some ballots are smaller. Some have different fonts,” Becker said. “It varies by state what information has to go on that ballot, but almost every state requires information like, your name and address, and also personal information — perhaps a birth date or an identification number — and then a signature.”
“It’s the same process in Florida where the president votes, as it is in North Carolina, as it is in Pennsylvania, as it is in Michigan,” Becker added. “It’s one of the reasons I really recommend we don’t get stuck on the names.”
No matter how you vote, do it early
Both sites will navigate voters to their state election board websites — to further research rules at the local level.
“My biggest advice to everyone is whatever you’re going to do, whether you’re voting by mail, whether you’re voting in person, do it early,” she said. “That way you will know that you got there and it will likely be less crowded if you’re doing it in person, and you can get your vote in and know that it will be counted.”
This story was reported from Cincinnati.