WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump frequently says there’s a difference between absentee voting, which he once called “good” in a tweet, and mail-in voting, which he has called “inaccurate and fraudulent.”
But the people who run elections don’t make that distinction.
Though the terms vary from state-to-state, as do the laws, the terms “absentee voting,” “mail-in voting” and even “universal vote by mail” have different meanings than the ones Trump has assigned to them, causing some confusion about the November election. States are facing a sharp increase in requests for mail-in voting as the coronavirus leaves voters unwilling to wait in lines or crowded precincts to vote.
But the president has alleged, without evidence, that the process is ripe for fraud. He has raised concerns — even questioned whether the Nov. 3 election should take place that day — over the legitimacy of the election as he trails Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the polls.
Trump continued his attack on Monday, saying at a White House news conference that universal mail-in voting, where absentee ballots are sent automatically to all voters in a state, was going to be a “disaster” and “a great embarrassment to our country.”
The president backed off a bit Tuesday, tweeting: “Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting, in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True.”
Biden has said that the virus makes it critical that everyone be able to vote without standing in line at a polling place and encouraged Congress to provide money in the stimulus package for states and the U.S. Postal Service to make that happen.
Here’s a quick guide to how the terms are most commonly used by elections officials:
The practice of mailing in a ballot began during the Civil War with soldiers who were off fighting in other states. Over the years, it expanded to include other people who would be “absent” from their home on Election Day — such as the U.S. president — then later to people with disabilities, the elderly and those with other excuses for not being able to vote in person. Today, residents of all 50 states can vote absentee, though in some places an excuse is required.
As absentee voting became more widespread, elections directors began referring to voting at a polling place — whether on Election Day or before — as “in-person voting.”
No-excuse absentee voting
As absentee voting grew more popular over the last few decades, states such as California did away with the requirement for an excuse. This practice became known as no-excuse absentee voting. Today, residents of 34 states and Washington, D.C., allow absentee voting without an excuse by law, while others have loosened requirements due to the coronavirus pandemic. Lawsuits are under way in multiple other states to suspend or throw out excuse requirements or to declare fear of contracting the virus at a polling place a valid excuse.
Because most voters in a no-excuse absentee ballot state are no longer “absent,” many elections officials have begun using the term “vote-by-mail” or “mail-in ballots” as a catch-all term for ballots sent through the mail. One national think tank uses the term “vote at home” as an alternative, while a research group calls it “voting outside the polling place.”
As vote-by-mail became more popular, a handful of mostly Western states did away with the requirement to request a mail-in ballot, opting to automatically send every registered voter a ballot. This practice is now referred to as “universal vote-by-mail.” These are sometimes called “all-mail elections,” though voters often still have more limited opportunities to vote in person.
Many states also allow voters to show up at the elections office or other early voting centers in the days before an election, fill out a mail-in ballot and hand it in. Some states call this “early voting,” but others, including Virginia and Wisconsin, refer to this as “in-person absentee voting.” Other states refer to all votes cast before Election Day, including mail-in and in-person, as “advance ballots.”
To complicate matters, some states have their own specific terminology. To get around a provision in the state constitution, lawmakers in Pennsylvania who wanted to move to no-excuse absentee voting decided to call it “mail-in voting” and keep “absentee voting” as a separate but functionally identical process.