Administration of Absentee Ballot Programs

Working Paper No.: 
112
Date Published: 
07/15/2013
Author(s): 
Barry C. Burden, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Brian J. Gaines, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Executive Summary

  1. Americans cast their ballots in three main ways: at a traditional neighborhood polling place on election day; early, in person at a government office or voting center; and absentee, which is usually submitted early by mail.  The proportion of all ballots cast by the latter two methods continues to rise steadily.

  2. The introduction and expanded use of convenience (absentee and early) voting does not seem to have increased voter turnout.

  3. Because they generally take place before election day, both absentee and early voting complicate late changes in ballots.

  4. Compared with traditional and early voting, absentee voting results in more lost votes. It is more susceptible to two types of problems for voters and officials: errors that result in higher ballot rejection rates and less security in the voting process.  To minimize these concerns, we recommend early voting as a preferable way to increase voter convenience.

  5. In many cases, absentee-voting rule changes that might reduce one problem arguably exacerbate the other, so there is no clear optimal set of procedures for absentee voting in regard to such  matters as submission deadlines or voter validation methods.

  6. Some standardization in absentee-voting rules, however, should be relatively uncontroversial.  We conclude with several suggestions for best practices. Facilitate fast delivery of absentee requests by offering many means for making requests.  Provide postage for returning absentee ballots by mail, and cautiously consider other means for transmitting absentee ballots.  Favor traditional election day voting over early voting, and prioritize early voting over absentee voting.  Encourage voters to check the status of their absentee ballots before election day. Avoid counting ballots before election day.

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