Paul Gronke: Agreeing On Election Terminology Can Help Focus Debates Over How To Respond To COVID-19

The following is a guest post from Paul Gronke, Director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College”

There’s been a lot of discussion of how to conduct a safe and secure election in 2020. It seems long ago that we were mainly concerned with cybersecurity, paper trails, and risk limiting audits. Now the conversation has shifted to not only how to protect our elections infrastructure, but how to protect our election workers and our voters from the threat of COVID-19.

One way these conversations can get derailed is when we lack agreement on basic terminology. It’s especially challenging in United States elections because different states use different terms to describe similar administrative practices and procedures, and when our President tweets that “Mail ballot, they cheat” when he himself casts an by mail, absentee ballot.

Not speaking for every scholar or practitioner by any means, but as an expert in the field , a few basic distinctions may help focus the debate.

1.     There Are Three Main “Modes” of Balloting: Election Day Voting, Early In-Person Voting, and Absentee / Voting by Mail

a.     ELECTION DAY or PRECINCT PLACE voting is used to describe voting on Election Day at a polling place / precinct place.

b.     EARLY IN PERSON VOTING describes voting prior to Election Day at an early voting location, most often a county or local elections office, or a satellite location, or at a voting center. 

c.     ABSENTEE / VOTING BY MAIL usually refers to any of a variety of ballot delivery and return methods whereby a ballot and accompanying materials are sent from a local jurisdiction, most often using the US Postal Service. Voters complete the ballot at a time and place of their choosing, and the ballots are returned either through the postal service, or dropped off at a secure location (county office or drop boxes)

2.     Different Kinds of Voting By Mail

a.     There are three main vote by mail regimes, and the distinction between these are important. In all cases, ballot materials (ballots, ballot envelopes, and security sleeves) are sent to the mailing address listed in registration file using the US Postal Service. Ballots may or may not be returned using the USPS — many voters choose to drop ballots by hand at a county office, at a secure drop box (if this is provided), or, where allowed, at a polling place on Election Day. 

b.     Excuse-Required Absentee Voting (or just “absentee voting”) means that an excuse is required to cast an absentee ballot. Seventeen states still require some sort of excuse, and the list of excuses varies quite a bit. 

c.     No-Excuse Absentee Voting is allowed in 33 states and the District of Columbia.

d.     Full Vote By Mail are systems that don’t have precinct polling places at all — all individuals with an active voter registration record are sent a ballot (hence, this is sometimes called a “universal ballot delivery” system).

e.     “Vote at Home” is a more recent term that some prefer because it’s a better description of how ballots are actually completed (and “vote by mail” is a bit misleading)  because less than half of the voters in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington actually return their ballots “by mail”, choosing instead to drop them off at secure location. 

f.      In Colorado and California’s Voter Choice Counties, Voter Service Centers are established where voters can cast an in-person ballot (if they surrender their vote at home ballot).  In the other Vote at Home states, voter services are provided, generally at the county office. 

3.     Common Sources of Confusion

a.     “Early Voting” is often used as an umbrella term covering any system where voters cast a ballot at a time and place other than on Election Day and at a precinct polling place, therefore inclusive of “early in person” and “absentee by mail”. 

b.    “Voting by Mail” and “Vote at Home” are often used to only describe the universal ballot delivery systems and states. 

c.     Some states retain categories or descriptions that have fallen out of sync with their current practices. Most notably, states that provide for “in-person” absentee voting, such as North Carolina, may still use the description “absentee” even though they are actually operating an early in-person system (North Carolina uses the label “ONE-STOP ABSENTEE” in its voter files). 

4.     Other Useful Glossaries and Guides

a.     The Election Assistance Commission Glossary

b.     The National Institute of Standards and Technology Glossary

c.     The National Conference of State Legislatures Election Administration Page

d.     Election Cybersecurity Glossary 

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