Absentee voting (or voting by mail) is an easy way for busy family caregivers and seniors who are hospitalized or have limited mobility to cast their votes in the upcoming election. All states allow some form of absentee voting to ensure that people who can’t (or don’t want to) go to their local polling place on Election Day (November 3, 2020), have the opportunity to vote.

According to USA.gov, many states are making it easier for citizens to vote absentee by mail this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. This is especially important for seniors, who are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, and their family caregivers. Each state has its own unique set of rules regarding absentee voting and these may be slightly different this year to minimize health risks for voters and poll workers. The following information pertains to the 2020 general (presidential) election and may continue to change as states finalize their voting rules and procedures in this unprecedented time.

Who Can Vote By Mail?

Every state has a system in place for mail-in voting, but some states require registered voters to provide a valid excuse explaining why they cannot cast a ballot in person at their polling place early or on Election Day. Examples of valid excuses include illness, disability, being a family caregiver, work obligations and travel outside your county on Election Day. Even if an excuse is not required to obtain an absentee ballot, some states make the voting process easier for certain people (such as seniors and family caregivers) who provide this information about their situation.

Other states allow all registered voters to apply for mail-in ballots without providing an excuse. A handful of states automatically send absentee ballots to all registered voters. In these so-called “mail-in only” states, a voter must only request their ballot if they need it sent to an address other than the one that is associated with their current voter registration.

Again, the coronavirus pandemic has caused some states to relax their rules regarding who is permitted to vote by mail.

How to Request an Absentee Ballot

You can generally apply for an absentee ballot from your local election office using a special form and then submitting it in one of several ways:

  • In person
  • Over the phone
  • Online
  • By mail (regular mail or e-mail)
  • By fax

Information Needed to Complete an Absentee Ballot Request

To complete an absentee ballot application for yourself, you will need to supply identifying information, such as your name, date of birth, address, and possibly a signature. Some states require voters who are applying for absentee ballots to include their driver’s license number, social security number or a photocopy of their ID with their application.

As a caregiver, you can also request an absentee ballot on behalf of a senior, but you will have to provide some additional information to do so. You will need to include your loved one’s identifying information as well as your own to complete the application. Keep in mind that you are not actually casting a vote for your loved one; you’re just asking to have a blank absentee ballot sent to them.

Be aware that there may be stricter rules for what seems like a simple absentee ballot application in a few states. For example, one’s signature on the application may need to be witnessed or notarized to be considered valid. Again, rules for the 2020 general election may be altered due to the coronavirus pandemic.


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Deadlines to Request an Absentee Ballot

Deadlines for absentee ballot applications vary by state, the method by which a voter submits their request (in person, by mail, online, etc.) and associated turnaround times. It is best to request an absentee ballot (or address change) as early as possible before Election Day to avoid missing any important deadlines.

In most states, applications for absentee ballots must be received no later than approximately one week prior to Election Day. However, some states set deadlines for mail-in ballot applications much earlier than Election Day. For instance, an application for a regular absentee ballot in Rhode Island must be received by the 21st day before the election.

Individuals who planned to vote in person but missed the absentee application deadline and cannot make it to their polling place on Election Day may be eligible for an emergency mail-in ballot.

How to Submit a Mail-In Ballot

Absentee ballots can be cast in a few different ways depending on the state. Of course, mail-in ballots are typically completed and then mailed back to the proper election office, but some states also allow voters to hand in their completed absentee ballots in person during early voting periods and/or on Election Day.

In most states, a close family member or caregiver (often referred to as a designated agent or authorized bearer or messenger) is permitted to mail in or hand-deliver a loved one’s absentee ballot. However, there may be additional paperwork that must be completed, such as an affidavit, an authorization, a voter assistance form or some other signed statement, certifying that the voter cast the ballot without undue influence and gave their consent for the ballot to be hand-delivered on their behalf.

Be aware that some states place limits on who may hand-deliver another person’s completed absentee ballot. For example, Alabama is extremely strict and only permits a designee to deliver another voter’s ballot if it is an emergency absentee ballot. Other states place strict limits on how many ballots may be delivered by a designated agent. This is an important detail for family caregivers who are caring for two or more people who wish to vote absentee.

Deadlines for Casting Absentee Ballots

If you want your vote to count, a completed mail-in ballot must be received by a certain deadline—typically the afternoon or evening of Election Day. However, growing concerns about delays with U.S. Postal Service operations and a large shift to mail-in voting due to fears of long lines at polling places during the COVID-19 pandemic have led some states to alter their voting deadlines.

Certain states also have postmark date requirements that determine whether a ballot will be counted. For example, in Ohio, a completed absentee ballot must be “postmarked no later than the day before the election and received by the board of elections no later than 10 days after the election.”

Be sure to check with your state or local election office for specific voting rules and regulations in your area. You can use the tools and resources on USA.gov/absentee-voting to learn more about applying for and casting mail-in ballots, helping a senior vote, early voting and much more.

Sources: State of Rhode Island Board of Elections: FAQ (https://elections.ri.gov/faq/); VOPP: Table 10: Who Can Collect and Return an Absentee Ballot Other Than the Voter (https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/vopp-table-10-who-can-collect-and-return-an-absentee-ballot-other-than-the-voter.aspx); Alabama Secretary of State: Absentee Voting Information (https://www.sos.alabama.gov/alabama-votes/voter/absentee-voting); Ohio Secretary of State: Absentee Voting (https://www.ohiosos.gov/elections/voters/absentee-voting/)