Many states changed their election laws in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and following the 2020 election. With the 2022 elections coming up in November, the process of registering to vote and casting a ballot can vary widely from state to state.
Certain rules regarding elections are set by the Constitution, including the date of the general election, restrictions on who has the right to vote, and the prohibition of poll taxes. Congress can also pass laws to protect the right to vote including protections against voter discrimination and to ensure overseas military personnel and other American citizens living abroad can vote.
However, most election rules are set by state and county governments. Some are written in state constitutions and others are individual laws passed by the legislature. Counties typically administer elections and in some states can set rules for how and when people can vote. Election laws can also be passed by ballot initiative or referendum.
Every state except North Dakota requires residents to register to vote. Twenty-eight states require voters to register before Election Day. This deadline can range from 11 days before Election Day in Nebraska to 30 days before Election Day in nine other states.
Twenty-two states and Washington, DC offer same-day voter registration, which allows voters to register in-person at early voting locations or their polling place on Election Day. In these cases, election officials will ask the voter to fill out an application and provide necessary identification. Voters will then fill out a provisional ballot, which will not be counted until a county official verifies the registration details.
The process of registering to vote has changed within the last few decades, with most states now offering fully online registration systems. However, eight states do not offer fully-online registrations. These states require voters to submit the voter registration form either by mail or in person.
Every state offers some form of mail-in voting. Eight states mail ballots to every registered voter. With the exception of Oregon, each of these states offers in-person voting options as well. Oregon does not have any in-person polling locations.
All other states offer some form of mail-in voting. Voting by mail may also be called absentee voting, depending on the state. The terms are generally used interchangeably. The rules on who can vote by mail differ by state. Fifteen states require voters to have an excuse to vote by mail. These excuses can include being out-of-county on Election Day to conflicting work shifts to illness or disability. In some states, college students living in a different state or county from where they registered to vote can cast a ballot by mail.
Seven states do not require a reason for some older voters to cast ballots by mail.
For those who vote by mail, 32 states and Washington, DC offer drop boxes for voters to return ballots in person.
Ballot drop boxes are defined as a “secure, locked structure where voters can deliver their ballots,” according to the Election Assistance Commission. The rules regarding the location, availability, and security of ballot drop boxes differ greatly depending on the state and county. For example, some states and counties allow ballot drop boxes to be unstaffed and available to voters 24 hours a day. Other states require these boxes to be staffed by an election official and can only be accessed during set times.
Eighteen states do not offer ballot drop boxes. In all but one of these states, voters may drop off ballots in person to the county’s election office during specific time periods. Tennessee prohibits any in-person ballot returns, requiring all absentee ballots to be returned by mail.
The process of early voting differs from state to state. Some states refer to early voting as “in-person absentee,” where voters request and fill out an absentee ballot in person the same day. In this case, the absentee ballot is collected and counted with other mail-in ballots. Other states treat early voting similarly to Election Day, in which voters use voting machines to cast their ballots. Both allow voters to go to polling locations to vote in person before Election Day.
The length of the early voting period can also vary widely by state and county. Pennsylvania has the longest early voting period, starting 50 days before Election Day. The shortest early voting period is in Kentucky, which starts five days before Election Day. The amount of early voting locations and their hours differ by state and county.
Four states offer in-person voting only on Election Day. Oregon does not offer in-person voting at all.
All states require some form of voter identification during the election process, either when registering to vote or voting for the first time. But the rules on when voters are required to show ID depend on the state. Fifteen states and Washington, DC do not require voters to show ID at the polls if they have voted before.
Fourteen states request voters bring a form of ID to the polls, but offer ways to fill out a regular ballot if voters do not have an ID. In most cases, the process includes the voter giving election officials personal information, such as their name, address, or date of birth, and then signing a legal document affirming their identity. Voters then can fill out a ballot, the same as any other voter would that day.
Twenty-one states require voter ID. Eleven of these states require the ID to include a photo. The remaining 10 states allow some form of non-photo ID to be used. If a voter does not bring an ID to the polls, they have the option to fill out a provisional ballot. The provisional ballot is not counted by election officials until the voter returns with proof of ID. The amount of time given to a voter to produce this ID varies state to state.
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The rules for how ballot initiatives or referendums work depend on the state.
Identification requirements to register to vote differ by state.
A provisional ballot allows someone who thinks he or she is an eligible voter to vote. If election officials determine that the provisional voter is registered and eligible to vote, the ballot will be counted. If the voter is not eligible to vote a provisional ballot, the ballot may be rejected. The rules and procedures for validating a provisional ballot depend on the state.
Tennessee exempts voters 60 or older from needing a reason to vote by mail. Six other states exempt voters 65 and older.
Some states may allow religious exemptions to the ID requirement.
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