Home / Population and society / Articles / How common was by-mail voting before COVID-19 and which states will allow it in 2020?

For many Americans, voting means casting a ballot at a local polling place on Election Day. Yet, according to data collected by the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), about 43.2% of Americans who voted in the 2018 election did so outside of the traditional Election Day context, either casting a ballot at an early in-person polling place or by mail. And as many states expand access to absentee or by-mail voting in light of COVID-19, that percentage may increase during this November’s presidential election.

How did Americans vote in past elections?

After each federal election, the EAC collects data from over 6,450 voting jurisdictions to record how elections are administered in all 50 states, Washington, DC, and the US territories. According to this data, over 120 million Americans, or about 52.5% of the citizen voting-age population, cast ballots in the 2018 midterm election.

Among these voters, 55.6% voted in-person on Election Day, 25.9% voted by mail, and 17.3% voted in person at an early polling place. By-mail voters include all who receive a ballot in the mail to fill out away from an election office—this includes domestic absentee voters, military and civilian overseas voters, and those living in all-vote-by-mail jurisdictions. Depending on the situation, these voters may return the ballot by mail or by delivering it to a designated drop box or polling site.

Voting methods in the 2018 midterm election

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States were expanding access to voting methods beyond in-person Election Day voting years before this pandemic. According to EAC data, the percentage of early in-person voters nearly doubled between 2012 and 2018; approximately 9.0% of all voters cast ballots this way in 2012, compared to more than 17.3% in 2018. The percentage of by-mail voters increased from 22% of all participants in the 2012 election to 25.9% in 2018.

By-mail voting in the 2018 midterm election

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In recent elections, voting methods have varied by geographic region. In 2018, seven western states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—reported by-mail voting as the most-used voting method, with over 50% of ballots cast by mail. Three of those states—Colorado, Oregon, and Washington—conducted statewide by-mail voting, sending ballots to all registered voters in the state. The seven majority-vote-by-mail voting states accounted for 65% of the nation’s by-mail ballots in 2018.

Meanwhile, six states—Arkansas, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas—reported early voting as the majority voting method during the midterm election. In the remaining 37 states plus Washington, DC, in-person Election Day voting was the primary voting method in 2018.

How are state voting policies changing for the 2020 election?

Some states were already on track to expand by-mail voting before the COVID-19 pandemic began, while others have adjusted their policies around absentee voting to accommodate voters who wish to avoid in-person polling places on Election Day.

State policies on by-mail voting

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In 2018, 19 states—home to about 43.1% of all US voters—required a qualifying excuse such as illness, travel, or age from voters seeking to vote by absentee or by-mail ballot. Now, less than three months out from the 2020 election, many states have expanded access to absentee or by-mail voting—by accepting concern about COVID-19 as a reason to vote by absentee ballot, by eliminating the need for an absentee excuse altogether, or by sending a ballot by mail to all voters automatically.

According to the state policies in place as of September 28, 2020, approximately 85.4% of US voters reside in states that will allow all voters to cast ballots by mail in this November’s election. Among these, nine states and Washington, DC will automatically mail a ballot to all registered voters. Thirty-six states will allow any voter to request an absentee or by-mail ballot, either requiring no excuse for the request or allowing concern about COVID-19 as a valid excuse.

Five states—home to 14.6% of all US voters—will require voters to provide a qualifying excuse beyond fear of COVID-19 in order to receive an absentee or by-mail ballot.