For Many Americans, Election Day Is Already Here: Early voting, Absentee Voting, What’s the difference?
Election Day is less than three weeks away, but for millions of Americans it's already arrived. More than 4 million voters already have cast early, absentee and mail-in ballots, and if the trend of recent presidential election cycles continues, the number of people voting in such nontraditional ways could top 50 million by the time all the votes are counted.
Those findings are broadly in line with the Census Bureau's post-election surveys, which ask people whether they voted on or before Election Day and whether they did so in person or by mail. In 1996, the first year those questions were asked, 10.5% of voters reported using what the Census calls an "alternative" method — either voting by mail or in person before Election Day. By 2012, the alternative-voting share had risen to 32.8%.
In several states, in fact, the "alternative" has become the norm. In 2012, there were 12 states — including several that are battlegrounds this year — in which nontraditional voting methods accounted for more than half the total vote. In North Carolina, for instance, early and absentee voting yielded nearly 2.8 million of the state's total 4.5 million votes. In Arizona, nearly two-thirds of the 2012 vote was cast absentee. In Florida, early and absentee balloting each accounted for well over a quarter of the total vote; only 44% of Florida’s voters cast their ballots in the traditional way. And in Oregon and Washington, elections already were conducted entirely by mail (they’re being joined by Colorado starting this year).
Absentee voting began during the Civil War as a convenience for Union soldiers in the field. By the middle of the 20th century, most states had adopted some form of absentee balloting, for civilians as well as members of the military, though typically it was restricted by residency and other requirements (such as limiting the practice to people who physically could not get to the polls or would be away from home on Election Day).
In the 1970s and '80s, states began experimenting with other types of nontraditional voting. Eliminating special residency requirements and the need for a specific excuse to vote absentee was a common first step: California, Oregon and Washington were among the first states to introduce "no-excuse" absentee voting. Today, 27 states and the District of Columbia offer no-excuse absentee voting, compared with just 11 in 1992.
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