While it might be making recent headlines, there’s very little about absentee voting that is new. According to the Constitutional Accountability Center, “One of the earliest known instances of absentee voting occurred during the American Revolution. In December 1775, a group of soldiers from the Continental Army sent a letter back to their town asking if their votes could be counted in a local election. And at the town meeting held to discuss the issue, the town agreed to count the votes, ‘as if the men were present themselves.’”
During the War of 1812, Pennsylvania allowed soldiers to cast absentee ballots if they were stationed more than two miles from their home. After the end of the Civil War, the states gradually passed new laws to expand absentee voting to civilians. Between 1911 and 1924, 45 of the 48 states adopted some kind of absentee voting.
By World War II, every state let soldiers vote absentee, and the military was responsible for about 3.2 million absentee ballots cast, nearly seven percent of the total electorate in the 1944 presidential election.
For a more recent example, in the 2016 election, about 24 percent of all ballots were cast in the mail, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission.
As of press time, 34 states (plus D.C.) offer “no-excuse” absentee ballots, and will mail residents an early ballot upon request: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Requests for an absentee ballot may be made online by visiting absentee.vote.org, and filling out a short request form.
Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington already send ballots to all eligible voters, so residents do not need to request one. All states permit residents who will be outside their home county to vote absentee, as well as voters with an illness or disability. Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia also offer the option to elderly voters.