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Absentee voting is voting by people who are absent from the polling places on the day of an election. The first instance of absentee voting came during the Civil War, when Union soldiers were given the opportunity to vote in home district elections.Attitudes towards absentee voting have changed. However, last in Vermont (1896) and Kansas (1901 and 1911) extended the option to anyone who had a valid reason for being away from his home precinct on election day. This has become universal.The trend has continued towards a more liberal interpretation, including absence due to illness or infirmity. Oregon voted in 1998 to make absentee voting moot by eliminating all physical voting places and conducting all elections by mail.
How mail-in voting began on Civil War battlefields
The 1860s paved the way for remote voting in the U.S., a process that faces renewed controversy during the coronavirus pandemic.
When soldiers living in Civil War encampments wanted to cast their vote for Republican incumbent Abraham Lincoln or Democrat George McClellan in the 1864 election, most were able to follow the same steps as their parents back home. Lists of registered voters were filled out on the battlefields. De facto election judges and clerks were plucked from the gathered troops. From Kentucky to Vermont, voting rights were extended to those far away from the polls for the first time—though not without significant legal challenges and public skepticism.
More than a century and a half later, as the United States grapples with a pandemic and an upcoming presidential election, voting by mail has again taken center stage. On Thursday, President Donald Trump told Fox News that he opposes additional funding for the U.S. Postal Service to handle an influx of mail-in ballots during the election. “Now they need that money in order to make the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots," Trump said, claiming that those votes would be “fraudulent.”
But COVID-19 has added a fresh urgency for states to reassess the need for in-person voting, as long lines and crowded polling stations are considered risks during a time when health professionals warn of a second wave of infections. (Read about what Dr. Fauci says the U.S. needs to safely reopen.)
Absentee voting provides a means for qualified voters to participate in upcoming elections even though they may not be able to go to the polls on Election Day. Although absentee voting is gaining popularity nationwide, the means of voting an absentee ballot has been an important part of the election procedure since it was used in colonial times as early as the 17th century.
The Civil War produced a situation where absentee voting was used extensively for the first time in the United States. After the War, most of the absentee voter laws were repealed. They were reinstated during WWI and by the passage of the Soldier Voting Act during WWII. Absentee voting has long and noble tradition. In today's fast paced society, it is a necessary and positive alternative for the voters of Scotland County.
How to Participate
The last day to request a one-time ballot or sign up for the PEVL in Arizona is Oct. 23.
Hobbs’ office recommends Oct. 27 as the last day to mail back ballots. Voters can also return ballots to drop-box locations around their county.
Jessica Swarner is the content producer for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.
Absentee Voting in the Civil War: Ohio Cover
Civil War cover for mailing Ohio's 1864 state election tally sheet from out-of-state military voters.
Some of the eligible voters from Highland County, Ohio were not at home for the state election in October 1864. Service with the Union army had brought them to Atlanta, Georgia. However, with a recent provision enacted by the Ohio legislature, they were able to vote absentee. This pre-printed envelope contained a tally sheet of votes from the soldiers of Highland County at the Field Hospital 2nd Division 23rd Army Corps.
During the Civil War, Ohio extended the vote to military personnel stationed outside of their home districts. Precedents dated to Pennsylvania's 1813 legislation during the War of 1812 (reenacted in 1839) and New Jersey in 1815. Between 1861 and 1862 six of the eleven Confederate states granted absentee balloting for the military. For Northern states, the question about voting rose as the sheer number of soldiers and sailors increased.
In June 1862 Missouri was the first in the Union to make allowances. The issue gained urgency in anticipation of the 1864 national election. Debates in the state legislatures followed party interests. Politicians tended to support out-of-state military suffrage if these votes were expected to favor the party, and the military electorate leaned towards the Republican candidates. Most of the states in the Union granted absentee voting for its military service members in time for the 1864 presidential race between incumbent Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democratic candidate George McClellan.Drawing of Pennsylvania soldiers voting by William Waud, published in Harper's Weekly, October 29, 1864. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Each state also had to figure out how the men at the front would submit their votes. Mailing proxy votes, ballots or tally sheets was part of the 1864 absentee voting procedures for Connecticut, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia (Carter pp. 2-15). Soldiers and sailors voted in camps and hospitals under onsite inspection by appointed clerks or state officials. For instance, Pennsylvania officials prepared mailing materials for conveying the votes gathered at the front. State official David McKelvy listed "Poll Books and tally lists, copies of laws, detachments, envelopes and 960 12 cent P.O. stamps and 320 3 cent P.O. stamps" in the account of his trip to oversee voting in the field (McKelvy p. 390).
Ohio produced envelopes for both the state and national elections. Much like the envelope for the October 1864 state election, the upper left corner of the envelope was marked "presidential election" for use with the national ballot in November. The covers could be carried by the post office or by an express company. The war ballots for this state election included seats for congressional representatives and the secretary of state. The absentee vote in this election made up nine percent of the vote (Beaton p. 77). In the presidential election, Ohio’s qualified military absentee voters (white men over the age of 21) cast 12 percent of all ballots (Beaton p. 78). The majority of military and civilian Ohioans voted for the re-election of President Lincoln.
4. Food and drink distribution to voters in line by non-poll workers is banned, but "self-service" water stands are allowed
One of the most contentious provisions is Georgia's ban on giving voters food or water while they're in line at the polls. During the primary last June, precincts around the state were plagued by hours-long lines , and voting rights groups were quick to point out that the late spring and summer heat make the ban on distributing food and water especially onerous. Volunteers and third-party groups regularly hand out water on hot days or hot drinks on cold days to voters standing in line.
Georgia had already outlawed campaigns or other groups from distributing or displaying any campaign material within 150 feet of a polling place or within 25 feet of any voters standing in line for a polling site, and the new law now bans giving voters any gifts, "including but not limited to, food and drink."
Gabriel Sterling, one of the top officials at the Georgia secretary of state's office, told CBS affiliate WMAZ that the ban is meant to prevent groups from using food and water to campaign within the restricted areas. The law provides an exception to allow poll workers to set up "self-service water" so people waiting in line can stay hydrated.
What Absentee Voting Looked Like In All 50 States
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY FIVETHIRTYEIGHT
We may have seen it coming, but now we know for sure: The coronavirus pandemic made the 2020 election look different from any other election in recent memory. Due to the massive expansion of mail voting, a staggering number of Americans cast their ballots before Election Day. And due to then-President Donald Trump&rsquos false claims that mail voting would lead to election fraud, a huge partisan gap emerged between ballots cast by mail and ballots cast on Election Day.
First, the share of voters casting mail ballots far exceeded that of any other recent national election, and the share of voters who reported going to a polling place on Election Day dropped to its lowest point in at least 30 years. According to preliminary findings from the 2020 Survey on the Performance of American Elections, a poll of 18,200 registered voters run by MIT political scientist Charles Stewart III, 46 percent of 2020 voters voted by mail or absentee &mdash up from 21 percent in 2016, which at the time was considered high. Only 28 percent of people reported voting on Election Day &mdash less than half of the 60 percent who did so in 2016. In-person early voting also reached a modern high (26 percent), although the change from 2016 (when it was 19 percent) was less dramatic.
The shifts took place all across the country, too. According to the SPAE, 47 states and the District of Columbia saw their rates of mail voting rise from 2016 to 2020. The only exceptions were the three states that have held predominantly mail elections for years: Colorado, Oregon and Washington. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest spikes in mail voting occurred in places that went the furthest to encourage mail voting (i.e., those that automatically sent every registered voter a ballot), especially those with little history of mail voting prior to 2020. These include New Jersey (where only 7 percent of voters voted by mail in 2016, but 86 percent did so in 2020), the District of Columbia (12 percent in 2016 versus 70 percent in 2020) and Vermont (17 percent in 2016 versus 72 percent in 2020).
By contrast, the five states that clung to the requirement that voters provide a non-pandemic-related excuse in order to vote by mail (Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas) saw some of the smallest increases. For example, Texas&rsquos rate of mail voting in 2020 was only 11 percent (barely changed from 7 percent in 2016), while Mississippi&rsquos was only 10 percent (just a tad higher than the 4 percent in 2016).
The week of the election already gave us a vivid illustration of how blue absentee votes were and how red Election Day votes were. (You&rsquoll recall that initial results from states that counted absentee votes first, such as North Carolina, were overly rosy for President Biden, and states that counted in-person votes first, such as Pennsylvania, were misleadingly favorable for Trump.) But over the past month, FiveThirtyEight has collected data on the partisanship of absentee and Election Day votes from state election officials &mdash and the numbers are striking.
We have data for only 15 of the 50 states, 1 but it tells a consistent story: Biden won the absentee vote in 14 out of the 15 states (all but Texas), and Trump won the Election Day vote in 14 out of the 15 as well (all but Connecticut). 2
Indeed, Trump won the in-person vote even in deep-blue states like Hawaii (by 71 percent to 27 percent). 3 He even won the Election Day vote in Biden&rsquos home state of Delaware, though it was extremely close there (49.25 percent for Trump versus 49.19 percent for Biden). Conversely, Biden won the absentee vote even in reliably red states like Arkansas (61 percent to 37 percent) and South Carolina (60 percent to 39 percent). If we had data for all 50 states, we would likely see Trump winning the Election Day vote in almost all of them and Biden winning the absentee vote in almost all of them.
Absentee votes broke blue, Election Day votes red
How absentee and Election Day votes in the 2020 presidential election broke down by candidate in the 15 states tracking results by voting method
*Arizona and Texas do not distinguish between mail votes and in-person early votes.
&daggerHawaii does not distinguish between Election Day votes and in-person early votes.
Source: State election officials
At the very least, the magnitude of this divide would have shocked anyone looking at the same data for 2016. Of these 15 states, 11 4 also broke down the results of the 2016 presidential election by voting method. And although absentee votes in 2016 were consistently more Democratic than Election Day votes (just as in 2020), the average gap between them was much smaller than in 2020 &mdash just 14 points in 2016 compared with 65 points in 2020.
In 2016, there wasn&rsquot much of a gap in how people voted
How absentee and Election Day votes in the 2016 presidential election broke down by candidate in the 11 states tracking results by voting method
Source: State election officials
Put another way: In 2016, several states had negligible differences between absentee and Election Day votes, but in 2020, even the smallest differences were gaping chasms. For example, in Alaska (where in 2016 Trump won absentees by 15 points and Election Day votes by 17), absentee votes in 2020 were Biden+19 and Election Day votes were Trump+36. And in Georgia (where in 2016 Trump won absentees by 2 points and Election Day votes by 6), absentees in 2020 were Biden+30 and Election Day votes were Trump+23.
It&rsquos not hard to see why Trump, then, in his desperation to hold onto power, claimed that Democrats used mail ballots to steal the election from him. Biden indeed would not have won without mail votes, but there is no evidence that a significant number of these votes were cast fraudulently. Rather, the increase in their use was a response to the pandemic &mdash one that was even encouraged by most election officials &mdash and the fact that these votes were so Democratic is very likely due to Trump himself. By casting doubt on the security of mail ballots, he all but ensured that most of his voters would cast their votes using traditional methods, leaving the pool of absentee ballots strikingly &mdash but not surprisingly &mdash blue. (Paired with Republicans&rsquo legal efforts to throw out entire batches of absentee ballots, this may even have been a deliberate strategy to improve Trump&rsquos chances by disenfranchising Democratic voters.)
As a result, it will be interesting to see whether these sudden changes surrounding mail voting represent a new normal or prove to be just a blip in history. Some states are thinking about making their expansions of vote-by-mail permanent, while other states have shown little interest &mdash still others are even considering bills to restrict absentee voting. But given that mail voting can make campaign operatives&rsquo lives easier, we might expect more Republicans to embrace it now that Trump is no longer president then again, that may depend on how much influence he wields in the GOP going forward. According to the SPAE, 65 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans who voted by mail in 2020 said they were &ldquovery likely&rdquo to vote by mail again (though, of course, it&rsquos not fully up to them). So, perhaps mail voting will maintain some popularity among members of both parties, but with an even wider division between them.
DNC Chair has faith in mail-in voting, expects safe convention
"Some part of the military has been voting absentee since the American Revolution," said Donald Inbody, a retired Navy captain who went on to a career in academia as a political science professor at Texas State University.
In one of the first known instances, a group of Continental Army soldiers fighting the Redcoats in 1775 were allowed to vote by proxy at a town meeting in Hollis, New Hampshire.
The history of absentee voting in the United States is the history of its major wars, when large numbers of Americans were away and politicians back home wanted to make sure they weren't disenfranchised.
During the Civil War, Pennsylvania sent election officials to army camps to set up satellite polling places. But most states that allowed soldiers to vote — only Republican-controlled ones, given Democrats' objections — did so through the mail via absentee ballot or by sending a letter to a proxy back home.
For soldiers from Minnesota, the process they used back then looks familiar today.
"They marked their ballot, stuck it in an envelope, mailed it back to whatever county they were from," said Inbody. "Then (county officials) dropped it into the ballot box with all the rest and counted them like all the rest."
By World War II, every state let soldiers vote remotely and the military was responsible for about 3.2 million absentee ballots cast, which amounted to nearly seven percent of the total electorate in the 1944 presidential election, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt won a fourth term in the White House.
The ‘Scantron’ of Voting
Soon after the first punch card voting machines hit the market in the 1960s, so did a competing voting technology called optical scanning machines. Jones says these voting machines were directly inspired by the fill-in-the-bubble scannable forms used to automatically grade standardized tests.
With fears over hacked voting machines and more states encouraging early voting by mail, optical scanning technology is now the most popular way to cast a vote in America. Fillable paper ballots can easily be mailed out to voters, reducing the need for polling place volunteers and greatly expanding the time frame for voting beyond election day.
Even better, optical scanning technology is cheap, Jones says, and there are no chads.
15 Election Results That Were Thrown Out Because of Fraudulent Mail-In Ballots
Voter fraud is too nominal to make a difference in any given election, goes one popular line of argument. But tell that to voters in parts of Florida, Missouri, New York, and North Carolina in recent years.
Districts in these four states saw election outcomes overturned after absentee voter fraud came to light.
Now, with millions of Americans homebound because of COVID-19, progressives are amping up their push for national mail-in voting as Michelle Obama throws her support behind related legislation purporting to be a response to the pandemic.
What neither the former first lady nor the bill’s Democrat sponsors in the Senate, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, have talked about are various provisions of the legislation that would allow for ballot harvesting. That practice was abused prominently in the largest voter fraud scandal of recent decades.
“It mandates states allow for ballot harvesting and vote by mail. On the whole, this has little to do with a COVID-19 response and a lot to do with the agenda the Democratic Party has proposed in the past,” Jason Snead, executive director of the watchdog group Honest Elections, said of the bill in a phone interview with The Daily Signal.
“They seem to view this as a politically opportune moment to advance legislation,” Snead said of Obama and other proponents.
“States should be encouraging wide use of absentee voting in the primary season,” Snead said, adding that states also should prepare for contingencies during the November general election even though it’s too early to know what the coronavirus crisis will be like at that point.
While working in the civil rights division of the Justice Department, J. Christian Adams helped bring successful cases against election fraudsters in Starr County, Texas and Noxubee County, Mississippi.
“With ballot harvesting, the politically connected visit the homes of people and vote the ballots for them. These are victims often afraid of consequences,” Adams, now president of Public Interest Legal Foundation, an election integrity group, told The Daily Signal.
In the fallout from the Mississippi case, judges overturned the results of several races.
“You can’t overlook the importance of government jobs in the economically dependent areas,” Adams said. “Vote harvesters, in some cases, don’t have jobs and make more doing this than anything else in some parts of the country.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., unsuccessfully pushed to include provisions of the Wyden-Klobuchar bill in the $2.2 trillion coronavirus emergency relief bill that Congress passed late last month.
“The largest number of voter fraud cases involve absentee ballots,” said Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the election law reform initiative at The Heritage Foundation, where he is a senior legal fellow.
Earlier this year in New Mexico, a man and a woman pleaded guilty in a scheme that involved falsifying absentee ballots in favor of a city councilman running for mayor of the town of Espanola in 2016.
Between 1992 and 2018, at least 20 voter fraud cases resulted in overturned elections, according to The Heritage Foundation’s Election Fraud Database.
“The problem with vote harvesting is that it destroys the secret ballot. It allows people to go into homes, pressure people,” von Spakovsky, who also is a former Justice Department lawyer, member of the Federal Election Commission, and member of the 2017 Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.
The Democrats’ legislation, called the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020, would require every state to offer at least 20 days of early voting and “no excuse” absentee balloting.
The rule in most states is that a ballot must be postmarked before Election Day. The Senate bill would force states to accept absentee ballots up to the point polls close, which voter integrity proponents worry would encourage vote harvesting.
The Klobuchar-Wyden legislation also states that local governments should begin processing absentee ballots up to two weeks before an election to avoid delay in certifying a winner. Currently, most jurisdictions don’t count ballots until after Election Day, in part to prevent voting trends from leaking out to the public or campaigns.
Here are 15 instances in which courts threw out an election result based in whole or in part on absentee voting fraud, from The Heritage Foundation’s database and other sources.
- In one of the most high profile cases, the North Carolina Board of Elections decertified the outcome of the 2018 race in the 9th Congressional District and ordered a new election after evidence of absentee ballot fraud emerged. About 61% of all mailed votes were cast for Republican candidate Mark Harris over Democrat Dan McReady, although only 16% of those requesting a ballot were Republicans. In the new election, Republican Dan Bishop stepped in as the party nominee and won.
- In 2018, Dennis Jones beat Tracy Gray by one vote in a Republican primary in Texas for a seat on the Kaufman County Commissioners Court. Gray challenged the outcome, alleging a vote harvester submitted illegal mail-in ballots, while eligible provisional ballots went uncounted. After a hearing, a state judge invalidated the results and ordered a new election, which Gray won by 404 votes.
- In another 2018 Texas case, Armando O’Cana seemingly won a run-off race for mayor in Mission, Texas, beating incumbent Norberto “Beto” Salinas. But after strong evidence emerged that O’Cana’s campaign had bribed voters, tampered with absentee ballots, and improperly “assisted” voters at the polls, state Judge J. Bonner Dorsey invalidated the result, saying: “I hold or find, by clear and convincing evidence, that the number of illegal votes was in excess of 158.”
- In 2017, Eatonville, Florida Mayor Anthony Grant was convicted of a felony charge of voting fraud and misdemeanor absentee voting violations. Prosecutors said that as a candidate in 2015, Grant coerced absentee voters to cast ballots for him. In at least one case, prosecutors said, Grant personally solicited an absentee vote from a nonresident. Grant, a former mayor, lost the in-person vote but won the election with more than twice the number of absentee ballots that incumbent Bruce Mount got. After Grant’s indictment, then-Gov. Rick Scott suspended the mayor. After his conviction, he was sentenced to 400 hours of community service and four years’ probation.
This case was more than a decade after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded: “The absentee ballot is the ‘tool of choice’ for those who are engaging in election fraud.”
This 1998 report came after the department concluded an investigation of Miami’s mayoral election the year before. A judge had thrown out the result after prosecutors brought a massive fraud case that involved more than 5,000 absentee ballots.
- In 2017, an Alabama state judge reversed the result of a race for Wetumpka City Council in which incumbent Percy Gill appeared to have won by three votes. Gill’s opponent, Lewis Washington, contested the outcome. A trial showed eight absentee ballots cast for Gill either had a forged signature or weren’t notarized or signed in front of the requisite number of witnesses.
- In the 2016 race for mayor of Gordon, Alabama, Elbert Melton won by just 16 votes. Melton later was convicted on two counts of absentee ballot fraud and removed from office. He was sentenced to a year in prison and two years’ probation.
- In 2016, Missouri state Rep. Penny Hubbard won the 2016 Democratic primary in the state’s 78th House District by just 90 votes. Her opponent, Bruce Franks Jr., contested the outcome over a lopsided absentee vote tally. Judge Rex Burlison ruled that enough improper absentee ballots were cast to change the results and ordered a new election. Franks won by 1,533 votes.
- In 2016 in Texas, former Weslaco city commissioner Guadalupe Rivera pleaded guilty to one count of providing illegal “assistance” to a voter in a 2013 race he won by 16 votes. Rivera admitted filling out an absentee ballot “in a way other than the way the voter directed or without direction from the voter.” A judge determined that 30 ballots were cast illegally and ordered a new election, which Rivera lost. He initially faced 16 related charges, but 15 were dropped as part of a plea deal. He was sentenced to a year of probation and ordered to pay a $500 fine.
- In 2015, Fernando Gonzalez clinched a win by 10 votes over Sergio Dias for a seat on the city council of Perth Amboy, New Jersey. After a determination that at least 13 absentee ballots were cast illegally, a state Superior Court overturned the results and ordered a new election. The second time, Gonzalez won by nine votes.
- New York State Assembly candidate Hector Ramirez pleaded guilty to one count of criminal possession of a forged instrument during his 2014 campaign. Prosecutors charged Ramirez with deceiving voters into giving their absentee ballots to his campaign on the false premise that it would submit them. Instead, Ramirez’s campaign inserted his name on at least 35 absentee ballots, prosecutors said. Ramirez initially won, but a recount determined that he lost by two votes. Bronx Supreme Court Justice Steven Barrett ruled that Ramirez could not run for office again for three years.
- In 2014 in Pennsylvania, Richard Allen Toney, the former police chief of Harmar Township, pleaded guilty to illegally soliciting absentee ballots to benefit his wife and her running mate in the 2009 Democratic primary for town council. Prosecutors said Toney applied for the ballots, then had them filled out illegally by individuals who were not expected to be absent on Election Day. The absentee ballot count flipped the primary results, securing a victory for his wife’s running mate. During a subsequent FBI investigation, prosecutors said, Toney attempted to prevent two grand jury witnesses and others from testifying. He was sentenced to three years’ probation.
- After a 2012 federal investigation of a voter fraud conspiracy in West Virginia, Lincoln County Sheriff Jerry Bowman and County Clerk Donald Whitten pleaded guilty to stuffing ballot boxes and falsifying absentee ballots to try to steal a Democratic primary election in 2010. Lincoln County Commissioner Thomas Ramey pleaded guilty to lying to investigators. Bowman and Ramey were involved in helping Whitten get re-elected. He won the primary but a judge overturned the election, tossing out 300 fraudulent ballots.
- One of the more complex cases arose in a rural jurisdiction when the Justice Department brought a civil suit against Noxubee County, Mississippi over a massive absentee voter fraud operation run by the local Democratic Party machine. Prosecutors said notaries paid by the machine took ballots from mail boxes and voted the ballots in place of the intended voters.
On June 29, 2007, U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee issued an opinion finding that county Democratic Party Chairman Ike Brown worked with the county’s Democratic Executive Committee to manipulate the process. Lee determined that Brown violated Section Two of the Voting Rights Act through racially motivated manipulation of ballots, obtained and improperly counted defective absentee ballots, and allowed improper “assistance” of voters to ensure that his favored candidates won.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment. The Justice Department entered into a consent decree with Noxubee County’s superintendent of general elections, administrator of absentee ballots, registrar, and county government to prohibit discriminatory and illegal voting practices and require officials to report such incidents.
“Dozens of contests were overturned there by the state courts,” said Adams, who was involved in the case as a Justice Department civil rights lawyer at the time.
- In 2004, the Alabama Supreme Court overturned the results of a mayor’s race in Guntersville after finding that absentee ballots were cast without proper identification and should have been discarded.
- In the 2003 mayor’s race in East Chicago, Indiana, challenger George Pabey defeated eight-term incumbent Robert Patrick on Election Day, but lost by 278 votes after about 2,000 absentee ballots poured in.
Evidence of voter intimidation and vote buying emerged and the Indiana Supreme Court ordered a new election. Pabey won with 65% of the vote, as detailed in the 2008 book “Stealing Elections” by journalist John Fund. The fraud led to at least seven convictions or guilty pleas in 2008, according to the Heritage database.