What Is An Absentee Ballot?

Written by
Amber Hobert
Published on
July 9, 2024
Table of Contents

Absentee Voting

The term 'absentee ballot' has been uttered by most American citizens since the COVID pandemic began in 2019. During this time, voting regulations were changed to make it easier and safer for individuals to vote during what were and still remain to be extraordinary times.

You might be wondering what voting by absentee ballot is or why it is so crucial during these unprecedented times. An absentee ballot is generally a vote cast by a person who is unwilling or unable to be present at the official polling station. As noted above, the global pandemic necessitated a change in voting regulations in 2020 and 2021. This included allowing ‘no-excuse absentee voting’ in 34 states, among other provisions discussed below.

This article attempts to cover several things, including what an absentee ballot actually is, the procedure of requesting an absentee ballot, how you can cast yours, and other common inquiries relating to this term.

Absentee Ballot 

An absentee ballot allows you to vote via mail. If you are a regular voter, you can opt for this voting method. There is no need to show any cause or excuse in most states. However, some states require a valid reason for this sort of voting. The primary and most common requirement is to request an absentee ballot to receive your vote through the mail.

In addition, you must return your absentee ballot to your local County Board of Registrar's office before the polls close on Election day. Otherwise, your precious vote won't be counted. You can return the ballot either in person or by mail, depending on which state you live in.

Absentee voting is also known as 'mail-in voting' or 'by-mail voting' or 'early voting'. If you cannot appear at the polling place on the day of the election, you can cast your vote by absentee. Visit vote.org to learn the specific rules of your state relating to the absentee ballot.

Doing so will allow you to know whether you need an excuse to cast an absentee vote or not, whether you are bound to return your vote via mail or in person, or whether it is totally up to you and more. Absentee voting is allowed both in local elections and general elections. 

History of the Absentee Ballot 

Vote by mail was initiated for soldiers to vote far from home during the Civil War. Eventually, in the late 1800s, several states extended the applicability of absentee voting to their civilians. Those states started allowing their civilian voters to cast an absentee vote under specific conditions. In 2000, Oregon became the first state to have an all-mail voting system.

Another interesting fact relating to absentee ballots is that in 1997 a state law passed in Texas allowed astronauts to cast absentee votes from outer space.

Acceptable Excuses to Cast an Absentee Ballot

You may or may not be accepted to vote for the election as an absentee voter since state laws significantly differ from each other. Therefore, you must pay attention to the information provided by your state's election officials. You can also contact your local election office to get accurate information on this particular aspect.

Go to NASS (National Association of Secretaries of State), select 'can I vote,' then select your state on the dropdown menu, and there, you will find most of your queries regarding absentee voting.

Typically, most states can allow you to cast an absentee ballot if:

  • You cannot be present at the polling place due to injury, illness, or disability. It can be a temporary illness, for instance, Covid-19.
  • On Election day, you are on vacation or a business trip out of the country or your city of residence. 
  • You are a student at any college or university located outside your own state.
  • You take primary care of one or more ill individuals.

Depending on the state, there can be other excuses in the required list or none at all. Therefore, it is crucial to follow your state's requirements on this. Contact the state election office or your local election officials for any concerns. 

Requesting and Returning Absentee Ballots

You must follow your state's deadline for both requesting and returning your absentee ballot. Visit U.S. Vote Foundation, where you can select your state and election level to view your election dates and deadlines. It's very crucial to note down the distinction between the dates for postmarking or receiving your ballot to avoid any mistakes.

How to Request an Absentee Ballot 

To cast an absentee vote, you have to make a request first. Different states have different rules regarding this. However, the general idea is the same; it entails voting from far. As a result, the basic steps are also the same. Below are the basic steps to take to request an absentee ballot:

Step One: Visit your state's website for voting-related issues

Your state must have a website for voting-related issues; visit that, and you will find a list of options, including absentee voting or ballot.

Step Two: Click on the absentee ballot option

A registration form will then appear before you. This form usually requires your details such as your name, full residential address, gender, whole social security number, date of birth, voter I.D. number, phone number, e-mail or fax, city name, zip code, state name, and a few other things. This form also requires your signature.

Step Three: Fill in all the details carefully

Ensure that you correctly fill out all your details.

Step Four: Submit the request

After successfully submitting the form, you will have a notification that will probably read, "Your request has been accepted."

That's it. Your absentee ballot request will be made.

How Will You Receive Your Absentee Ballot?

You can receive your absentee ballot in various ways. The three common ones are as follows:

  • By mail
  • Through fax
  • In-person

In most of the states, it is totally up to you. You can choose any of these methods to collect or receive your absentee ballot. But in some states, one or two ways are specified. You should do some digging to know which methods are available in your state. Also, it’s your job to figure out which method will be the most suitable for your situation. 

How to Cast an Absentee Vote

Casting an absentee ballot is almost the same for all states. Below is a step-by-step guide on the whole procedure:

Step One: Read the instructions on your absentee ballot

After receiving your absentee ballot, carefully read all the instructions. 

Step Two: Mark the ballot

Now, mark the ballot according to your choices for each office. 

Step Three: Once complete, fold it up 

Once you finish marking your ballot, fold it up and then put it into the Security Envelope. 

Step Four: Sign and date the envelope

Then, you have to write down the date. Your signature is also needed on the envelope, so do not forget to sign it.

Step Five: Confirm the ballot is inside the envelope

As a precaution, confirm that your ballot is actually inside the Security Envelope, then seal it.

Step Six: Place the security envelope inside the return envelope

Then, place your Security Envelope inside the Return Envelope. You might notice the return address of your County Board of Election is written on that envelope. You should also see a logo there, which reads, "Official Election Mail." 

Step Seven: Seal the envelope

Finally, carefully seal the Return Envelope.

Note: This is the standard way to cast an absentee vote. This method may vary a little bit depending on your state. Therefore, ensure that you follow the instructions given on the ballot to the letter before doing anything else.

How to Return an Absentee Ballot

There are a few different ways to return an absentee ballot. Usually, the methods are as follows for most of the general elections:

  • You can put your absentee ballot in the mail and ensure it will receive a postmark before the casting deadline. 
  • You can bring your ballot to the County Board of Election office no later than the last date of vote casting.
  • You can bring your ballot to an early voting poll site, usually around three to ten days before the actual casting day.
  • Also, bringing the ballot to the polling site before 9 a.m. of the election day may be allowed in some cases.

These methods listed above are the basic ones. Therefore, bear in mind that they might change depending on your state or election level. 

Mail Time Considerations for Absentee Ballots 

While returning your completed ballot through the mail, the United States Postal Service recommends all voters to post their mail in a timely manner so that their ballots can reach the board. The recommended time period is usually seven days before the general election date.

If you mail your ballot on Election Day, you should be aware of the posted collection times on collection boxes, as well as at the USPS's retail facilities. You must also consider that ballots entered after the last posted collection time will not be postmarked until the following business day. This would render your vote null and void as it will not be counted.

Voting After Requesting an Absentee Ballot 

You may still appear at the polls on Election day and cast your vote in person, even though you request, cast, or return an absentee ballot. This is due to the fact that the Election Law recognizes the change of plans. Therefore, the Board of Election is bound to check the poll book before taking care of any absentee ballot.

So, if you go to the poll site, on Election day or during the early voting and participate in voting, the vote you cast in person will be counted. Your absentee ballot will then be kept aside and will not be counted. 

Solutions to Absentee Ballot Errors

Certain problems or errors might occur as you complete an absentee ballot envelope, such as a miss-matched or missing signature. Luckily, most of those problems or mistakes can have solutions. You can file a statement regarding the solution with your Board of Election. If the defect found in your envelope is curable, the board of elections will notify you. 

Absentee Voting in South Dakota 

So far, this article has covered the standard rules of the absentee vote, which are applicable for almost every state. It will now look into South Dakota's absentee voting procedure. From registration to casting, everything is discussed step by step below:

Registration Process

Step One: Make sure you've registered to vote

Ensure that you have done your voter registration on S.D.'s portal. If you are not sure whether or not you are registered, please check to confirm your registration in S.D.'s voter information portal.

Step Two: Download a fillable pdf copy of the absentee ballot 

Then, download a fillable pdf copy of the Absentee Ballot Application from the same website mentioned above. 

Step Three: Print the ballot

Print that absentee ballot application after filling it up.

Step Four: Mail your signed and authentic application

After that, mail your original and signed application to the County Election Official of your area.

Note: Only groups listed in the Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act can submit their absentee ballot application via mail or fax.

Casting Your Vote

Step One: If registered, you can cast your vote in person

As a registered voter, you can always vote in person once absentee voting begins at your County Auditor's office. You just have to bring along your valid photo identification card. If you do not have a photo I.D., then you will be given the opportunity to sign a personal affidavit and cast your vote with a regular ballot.

Step Two: If unable to attend, an absentee ballot is required

If you are not able to attend your polling place in-person on Election Day, you may have the option to vote by absentee ballot. To cast your vote through an absentee ballot, you must request an absentee ballot application from your County Election Official.

Step Three: You will be sent a paper absentee ballot

After requesting an absentee ballot application, the County Election Official will send a paper absentee ballot to you. 

Step Four: Complete the ballot

Then, you may complete the ballot by carefully following the instructions given and returning it to the County Election Officials. In South Dakota, the County Election Official should receive your application for an absentee ballot before 5 p.m on the day preceding Election Day.

Moreover, your cast ballot must be received by your County Official on Election Day with enough time in hand to deliver it to your voting precinct before the closing of polls. If you are an overseas citizen or military, then you may have special absentee requirements. Check those requirements properly before applying for an absentee ballot.

Suppose you are a qualified voter but unable to attend regular voting because of sickness or disability. In that case, you can apply in writing and obtain an absentee ballot via authorized messenger. Such an authorized messenger will deliver the ballot from the County Election Official to you then return your marked ballot to the County Election Official.

The U.S. Constitution and Absentee Voting

In the United States Constitution, no step-by-step method or guide to voting is mentioned. According to Article 1, Section 4 of the U.S. constitution, it is totally up to each state to decide the times, places, and manner of holding elections. Being so open about the voting procedure has enabled it to evolve to meet the country's changing needs.

That's why when the absentee ballot became necessary, it was incorporated with zero hassle. In addition, every state has made its own rule relating to the absentee vote according to its situation. So, an absentee ballot may not be appropriately mentioned in the constitution, but it's an evolved version of regular voting. 

No-Excuse Absentee Voting

A large number of militaries were absentee voters before the civil rights movement. But after that movement took place, truly disabled individuals or those who could not reach their jurisdiction got the opportunity to cast an absentee ballot with no excuse. After a few years, absentee voting without any reason started normalizing.

According to most researchers, California was the first state to offer its voters 'no-excuse absentee voting.' However, some researchers claim it was Washington that started it first in 1974. Regardless of the state that did it first, other western states began following. Then in 2000, Oregon became the first state to switch to all-in-mail voting. From 2011, Washington started following the same.

In the 2020 national election, 34 U.S. states offered no-excuse absentee voting or allowed registered voters to cite the Covid situation as their cause of absentee voting. Nine states plus Washington D.C. mailed all the ballots to their voters. In addition, seven more states allowed absentee voting but required a valid reason other than Covid-19.

Almost all the states now offer absentee voting options for their registered voters. Some states allow absentee voting for all, and some require a reasonable excuse; that’s it.

You Can Opt to Cast an Absentee Ballot

Hopefully, the above discussion brings up almost everything you might want to know about an absentee ballot. Now you know what it is, how to request it, and how to return that ballot properly, which means that you can opt to cast an absentee ballot and do it correctly.

In addition, you now have a good idea of other voting rules relating to this concept and its history. You might have noticed how useful it is to have such an option and how flexible the United States Constitution is in an attempt to guarantee its citizens the right to vote.

The states' progressive values, including offering absentee voting play a valuable role in their political culture. If you are considering casting an absentee ballot but still need help or would like to know more about it, you can always reach out to a professional mail forwarding service to guide you through the process, depending on where you live and your circumstances.

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