Early Voting: What Do Campaigns Need to Know?

by Ben Holse (He/Him)

Early Voting- Girl holding up VOTE in letters and smiling at the camera

Answering Your FAQs about Early Voting in 2020

Due to the ongoing pandemic, we’ve seen a lot of talk recently about early voting in 2020. But early and absentee voting can be very, very different depending on where you live. While there are states that continue to limit absentee voting, early voting, or both, the trend across the country in recent years has been to make it easier for voters to cast a ballot. For instance, some states like New York and Michigan opened up access to early and absentee voting for the 2020 election cycle pre-COVID-19. 

There’s a lot of places online for good info about absentee and early voting, but the National Conference on State Legislatures (NCSL) has done a particularly great job of putting data about every U.S. state and territory in once place. Using NCSL data as a guide, below we answer a few of your most pressing early and absentee voting frequently asked questions (FAQs).

What is absentee voting?
Absentee voting is the process of voting at some point before Election Day at a location other than a designated polling place. All states allow some sort of absentee voting for populations like members of the military. But how accessible absentee voting is really depends on the state and location. Per NCSL, 2/3 of states allow voters to vote absentee without any excuse and about 1/3 of states require an excuse to vote absentee. In the age of COVID-19, some of the 1/3 that still require an excuse have either dropped that requirement temporarily or have allowed COVID-19 to be a permissible excuse. Typically, an absentee ballot is returned by mail but ballots can often be dropped off at a county clerk’s office or, increasingly, at a designated drop off box. Due to federal law, no states allow absentee voting to take place online (though some states do allow an individual to request an absentee ballot online). 

What is early voting?
Early voting is the process of voting before Election Day at a designated early voting location, whether it’s at a county clerk’s office, a courthouse, or another location opened up for that specific purpose. But the permissible early voting windows can vary widely in states where early voting is allowed. Per the NCSL, early voting windows in states can start as early as 45 days before Election Day, but the average time is 22 days before Election Day. Early voting windows can range in length from four days to 45 days, with an average span of 19 days. It’s important to note that some states use the terminology “in-person absentee” which in practice is very similar to the early voting in other states. Unlike Election Day, some states even permit early voting to take place on Saturdays and Sundays. 

Why do early and absentee voting exist?
Per the NCSL, absentee voting first came out of the U.S. Civil War so soldiers could cast a ballot back in their home states. Today, both absentee and early voting exist largely to make voting more accessible. Absentee voting, for instance, is a great way for many seniors to vote from the comfort of their homes. Early voting can allow people who may do shift work to vote on a day other than Election Day, which may conflict with their work schedule. Of course, in the age of COVID-19, early and absentee voting are both a means to allow for safer voting either by avoiding in-person contact through absentee voting, or by voting in person on a day that may be less crowded than Election Day. 

What is the difference between early and absentee voting?    
The biggest difference between early and absentee voting is where the voting takes place and how a ballot is submitted. In most absentee voting scenarios, the ballot is returned by mail. Conversely, most early voting is done in person at a designated early voting location. It’s also worth noting that a small handful of states like Colorado and Washington do all of their voting by mail. The other big difference between absentee and early voting is that you often have to request that an absentee ballot be mailed to you. This absentee ballot request process can vary widely. In some places, the absentee ballot request process is easy to do and may even be done online. In other states, like North Carolina, requesting an absentee ballot is an arduous process, even requiring that you have a witness sign in addition to the voter. Other states like California have a permanent absentee vote, meaning that once you sign up for the list, you will automatically get sent an absentee ballot in subsequent elections. Most states allow you to just walk into early vote locations and do not require you to call beforehand.

If the absentee/early voting windows can be weeks long, when do people tend to vote? 
As mentioned above, the absentee vote windows can be many weeks long. For some campaigns, it’s unrealistic to run a sustained communications program for three or more weeks during the full absentee and early voting windows. Countless studies have been done around when people tend to vote during long early and absentee vote windows. The majority of these studies give the same result, that the votes tend to come in in the shape of a reverse bell curve. This means that most people either vote as soon as possible or they wait until the very last minute to vote early or return their absentee ballot. Knowing this allows you to plan your communications around the time when people are most likely to actually vote. 

Which is more popular, early voting, absentee voting, or Election Day voting?
The way people in a state/area vote depends on a number of factors, including what’s legally permissible and the culture of voting. For instance, Texas is one of the 1/3 of states where you need an excuse to vote absentee, of which being age 65+ is an acceptable excuse. Pre-COVID, absentee voting for voters under the age of 65 in Texas was not a common voting method. However, Texas also has a very strong early voting culture and, depending on your location, anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 or more of total votes may be cast before Election Day. Other states, like Florida, have a very strong culture of absentee voting where it’s common for half or more of total ballots to be cast before Election Day.

How does absentee voting affect my communications programs?
When we do candidate trainings, we talk about knowing the important “collection points” for any campaign for communications planning. Election Day is predictably one of those important collection points. But your absentee voting period is another important collection point for many states. Depending on how prominent absentee voting is within your state or area, you may decide to run an absentee ballot chase program. A chase program is the process of “chasing” an absentee ballot with communications after an absentee ballot has been sent out. Many boards of elections will release the list of voters that have a requested an absentee ballot on a regular basis, often on a daily basis. Once you get that list of voters, you chase their absentee ballot with a piece of direct mail or a digital ad, so they get communications either at the same time or shortly after they receive the ballot. Others tend to utilize a “proactive ballot chase” approach. Proactive ballot chase is the process of identifying a group of likely absentee voters and communicating with them as one group early on, instead of doing this communication piecemeal after a ballot is requested. 

How does early voting in 2020 affect my communications programs?
Like the absentee voting period, the early voting windows are another critically important collection point for campaigns. As mentioned above, the length of the early voting window can vary widely. You want to weigh how heavily you communicate during each portion of the early voting window based on how prominent the early voting culture is in your state. For ID’d supporters, you may choose to run a GOTV program around early voting to try to bank votes early on and make your GOTV lift during Election Day a bit earlier. 

Have questions about running effective early and absentee vote programs for your campaign? Reach out to The Campaign Workshop!