In his State of the Union address, President Obama returned to a point he’d made on election night: The need to do something about long voting lines. Obama announced his plan for a commission to “improve the voting experience in America.” But often missing from discussions about how to make voting easier is the rapid expansion of absentee balloting. Letting people vote from home means fewer people queuing up at overburdened polling places. So why hasn’t vote-by-mail been heralded as the solution? When it comes to absentee and mail-in voting, researchers and voting rights advocates aren’t sure the convenience is worth the potential for hundreds of thousands of rejected ballots. Although Oregon and Washington are the only two states to conduct elections entirely by mail, absentee voting has expanded rapidly nationwide. Since 1980, the number of voters using absentee ballots has more than tripled. Roughly one in five votes is now absentee.
Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow voters to request an absentee ballot for any reason, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That’s up from the six states that did so in 1988, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Rare cases of voting fraud are more likely to be through absentee ballots, The New York Times reported last fall, citing comment from some election officials. Compared to in-person voting, an absentee ballot also is more likely to be rejected.
Yet few legislators proposed restrictions on absentee and mail-in voting to prevent fraud during the wave of voter ID laws introduced in the last election. Some point to partisan politics, as Republican voters traditionally have been more likely to vote absentee while Democrats tend to turn out early to vote in-person.