With the 2020 presidential election on the horizon and the COVID-19 pandemic still present mail in voting has been on the minds of the public. But what does mail in voting look like? What is the difference between mail in voting and absentee voting? What does each state have in do in order to secure the voting process? We take a look at the numbers.

What is mail in voting? Absentee voting?  Some use these words interchangeably while others insist, they mean different things. This causes confusion, and rightfully so. This is because ‘mail in’ voting in one state can mean the same thing as ‘absentee’ voting in another. A third state can have ‘mail in’ voting but it may not mean the same thing as the previous two. All voting that uses the United States Post Office (USPS) can fall under the same umbrella. In this respect ‘mail in’ and ‘absentee’ voting can mean the same thing. However, without context, the word usage is meaningless, specifically which state the speaker or writer is referring too. Every state has a voting process that utilizes the mail. Each state refers to this program differently, follows different rules and requires certain qualifications to utilize the system.  On the one hand they are the same thing, in that they utilize the USPS, however no two systems are exactly alike either, and not state has more than one system. There is no equivalence between any two.

Securing the Vote

What does each state do in order to secure this voting process? In order to understand the we reviewed each states requirement to vote by mail, regardless of how expansive their program is. Five states and Washington D.C. have an all-mail in process while other have strict requirements on who can vote using the USPS. We make no differentiation here; we only seek to understand the level of precautions each state takes in order to secure the voting process that utilizes the USPS. We looked at each state on five different dimensions.

Identification: Is identification required at any time in the process, either to register to vote by mail or vote. Identification must be renewed and is difficult to duplicate. Because of this we consider it a secure feature of any mail in voting.     

Notary: The purpose of a notary is to validate the identification of the signor of any document. The most commonly used method is ‘satisfactory evidence’ which does not require an identification card but allows the notary to determine what is or is not satisfactory. Because of this ability to circumvent validation we consider a notary a moderately secure feature of the voting system.

Witness: A witness denotes that only another witness over 18 years of age is required to sign the ballot. We do not consider this an insecure feature as any organized attempt to circumvent the system would likely contain more than one person.     

Signature: Denotes that somewhere in the process there is comparison of the signature eon the ballot to some other signature that has been previously collected. Many all mail in states have implemented software to make this process efficient. Because duplicating a signature is difficult we consider this a secure feature of the voting system.

Personally identifiable information (PII): Information that broadly a reference to the individual voting. Usually items such as name, address or birth-date. In today’s age this type of information is easily available and can be duplicated. Due to this we find this to be a less secure feature of a voting system.

The Data

First, we reviewed each state and D.C for each of the above factors. Of 50 states and D.C. we found that 32 states have what we consider more secure methods on the voting process that utilizes the USPS. This leaves 19 states that have less secure process in place for voting by mail.

Second, we reviewed each state to see the population of the U.S. that each represents. We found that the more secure methods cover 248 million people or 76% of the population. The remaining 24% of the population or  80 million people are governed by less secure vote by mail processes.