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Explained: Here is how postal voting in the US works

Unlike in India, all US elections–federal, state, and local– are directly organised by the governments of individual states.

Written by Om Marathe , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 3, 2020 8:40:15 am
United States Postal Service bins loaded with ballots rest in security cages at a Board of Elections facility in New York. (AP)

As the US presidential election is set to take place in November, many states are making postal voting options more easily accessible due to the coronavirus pandemic – which has impacted the US harder than all other countries.

President Donald Trump, however, has stridently opposed mail-in options, tweeting on Thursday, “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”

Previously, Trump has even said that should plans to expand postal voting succeed, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Voting amid coronavirus

Ever since the novel coronavirus pandemic has reached the US, many have pushed for the expanded use of postal ballots as opposed to in-person voting to ensure social distancing, a critical measure adopted around the world to halt the outbreak.

President Trump’s Republican party has been resisting these efforts – with its legislators and court appointees at both state and federal levels working against the expansion of postal balloting.

Republicans have argued that postal voting could increase risks of voter fraud, and have accused Democrats of using the pandemic as a pretext to further election reforms. Earlier this week, Trump made claims of a “rigged election” and that votes, specifically in New York state, were “missing”.

Experts, however, have called these fears exaggerated, and insisted that such malpractices are exceedingly rare in the US.

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Difference between mail-in and absentee voting

Even before his Thursday tweet, Trump has repeatedly hit out at “mail-in voting” while defending “absentee voting”– a distinction rejected by several experts who say that the process is nearly the same for both; their difference mainly arising due to the terminology used by individual states.

Unlike in India, where the Constitution provides for a separate rule-making Election Commission that is independent of the executive in government, all US elections–federal, state, and local– are directly organised by the governments of individual states.

According to the White House website, the US Constitution and laws grant the states wide latitude in how they administer elections, resulting in varying rules across the country.

What different states stipulate

While every single state allows postal voting, some do so only in certain circumstances.

In 17 states, mainly in the South and the Northeast, voters are provided absentee ballots if they provide an “excuse” as to why they cannot be present in person on election day.

READ | Donald Trump wants the US elections to be postponed. Is it possible?

FILE- Cages loaded with ballots in United Postal Service bins rest behind a worker at a Board of Elections facility in New York (AP/File)

Thirty–three states and the District of Columbia have “no-excuse absentee voting”, where voters can get an absentee ballot without providing justification, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The states of Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington have “vote-by-mail”, where every registered voter is sent a ballot without a request.

The 2020 election

Although individual states continue to have different postal voting rules, most of them are making these options more easily accessible due to the pandemic, and are inching closer to vote-by-mail.

According to federal election data, around 24 per cent of voting during the 2016 election, which Trump won, happened through postal ballots. This year, that proportion is expected to surge significantly.

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