What Does Absentee Mean? Clearing up Confusion Over Virginia’s Ballot Terms

Ballot to vote by mail

By Amie Knowles

October 17, 2020

Absentee, early voting, mail-in. They mean different things but it’s easy to get them all confused.

RICHMOND – It seems there’s a voting curve ball every couple of days this election season. Leading up to Election Day, concepts like absentee and early voting in Virginia changed drastically, compared to past years.

Now, absentee ballots don’t require a witness signature. People may place their votes 45 days prior to Election Day. Voter registration extended for 48 hours. Absentee ballot holders may tear up the document and vote in person. No-excuse absentee voting allows all Virginians cause to vote before November 3.

With all of the changes, twists and turns comes several uncommon vocabulary terms. Some have been around for years, while others are unique to the 2020 election season.

When it comes to voting in the United States, there are three ways to do it prior to Election Day this year. They are: absentee, mail-in and early voting. While sometimes used interchangeably, they all possess unique characteristics that differentiate them from one another.

Absentee voting

Andrea Gaines, director of community relations and compliance support at the Virginia Department of Elections, examined some of the differences.

“Absentee voting and mail-in voting are terms that both describe the method of sending ballots to voters by mail,” Gaines said. “Some states prefer to use one term over the other, while others use the terms interchangeably.”

Absentee voting takes place in Virginia and has for years. The practice started in 1812, when Pennsylvania became the first state to offer absentee voting for soldiers. That expanded to a national level during the American Civil War. President Lincoln was concerned about the mid-term elections and his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, pointed out there were quite a few votes on the battlefield, as soldiers couldn’t make it home on Election Day. Lincoln started asking states to let soldiers fill out ballots from the warzone. A total of 19 states honored that request, changing their laws.

Since then, several different circumstances granted Virginians an absentee ballot. If a solider was going to be away from their home precinct on Election Day, he or she was allowed to cast an absentee vote. A student away at college could also vote absentee. Those out of town on Election Day also met the requirements for an absentee ballot. If a person was chronically or terminally ill and couldn’t make it to the polls, they too could cast an absentee ballot.

Everything changes in 2020

This year, that all changed. The General Assembly and Gov, Ralph Northam made it so any Virginia voter can submit an absentee ballot, referenced with a new term, no-excuse absentee voting.

“After July 1, 2020, Virginians were able to vote absentee without needing an excuse, which can also be referred to as absentee in-person voting or early voting,” Gaines said.

When an individual votes absentee, they have a few options. They may fill out and mail in their ballot. They may return it in-person to their registrar’s office. Many register’s offices have an after-hours, secure drop box for absentee ballots.

Securing an absentee ballot in Virginia isn’t difficult, but does require an extra step that some states don’t have. That’s requesting a ballot.

Mail-in voting

There’s another form of submitting a vote before Election Day. That’s mail-in voting. In Virginia, it’s where the terminology gets a little tricky.

If a Virginian votes absentee, they send it back through the mail. So that’s mail-in voting, right? Well, not necessarily.

“There are several states where voter registration offices automatically send ballots to their registered voters. Virginia is not one of those states,” Gaines said. “In Virginia, voters have to complete an application in order to receive a ballot by mail.”

Colorado is an example of universal mail-in voting. There, every registered voter in the state receives their ballot in the mail. Once they fill it out, they send it back and they’ve officially voted.

This year, Montana, New Mexico and Nebraska allowed individual counties to make their own decision. There, clerks and registrars may proactively send registered voters a ballot in the mail, whether they’ve asked for one or not. 

Early voting

Early voting is one of the most popular methods this year outside of Election Day.

The option grants voting Virginians an opportunity to vote in-person before November 3. Instead of arriving at their designated precinct, voters instead go to their county or city registrar’s office. There, they may fill out a ballot and place their vote the same day.

In some areas, satellite early voting sites opened up in advance of the election. The Old Dominion Agricultural Complex in Chatham opened their doors for early voters.

Francis Tucker, chief of the Old Dominion Agricultural Complex satellite center for voting, greets hundreds of people each weekday.

“There’s not a negative here,” Tucker said. “We’re all positive.”

When people enter the complex, they first have their temperature checked by a touch-less thermometer. Then, they proceed to a table holding sample ballots for their particular portion of the county.

Volunteers at the complex hand out official, informative pamphlets, which cover the two amendments on the ballot. The paper informs readers of what will happen if they vote “yes” or “no.”

Then, the voter proceeds into the voting area. A spacious room filled with private, cardboard voting stalls situated atop multiple tables welcomes voters. A person checks in with a driver’s license or other form of proper identification. Then, they select a pen, which they get to keep at the end, and proceed to the ballot box.

“The privacy of the ballot is 1,000% there,” Tucker said.

Once an individual completes their ballot, they walk over to an automatic scanner, where they place their vote. At the end, they pick up an “I voted” sticker. Voters leave out of a separate door than they entered.

“It started out with about 100 people a day,” Tucker said. “Now, there are about 300 a day.”

A different take

Those not permitted into the facility due to fever or those with a handicap may also vote curbside at the Chatham complex.

The satellite office also has an absentee ballot drop box, monitored by video surveillance 24/7.

On Friday, October 23 and Saturday, October 24, the center will host a drive-thru voting event. People remain in their cars, fill out and cast their ballot.

“We thought, ‘That’ll be different. That’s thinking outside of the box.’ That helps everybody,” Tucker said.

Of course, people may still arrive bright and early at their precincts on November 3.  No matter the method, it’s important each registered voter casts a ballot.

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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