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Elections & Democracy

Updated For the People Act Has Some Much-Needed Improvements for Absentee Voting

Today, the Senate is holding a hearing on the For the People Act, a bill that would make dramatic changes to the way American elections are conducted. For starters, the bill would make voter registration automatic, overhaul campaign finance laws, strengthen election security, and put redistricting in the hands of independent commissions rather than state legislators.

It would also improve the options available to voters for casting their vote, in part by expanding access to absentee ballots and improving absentee voting systems. The first version of the For the People Act, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019, included absentee-related provisions that would:

  • Ensure that all eligible voters can vote absentee by mail.
  • Require states to process ballots that have been postmarked by Election Day.
  • Require states to notify voters if their absentee ballot signature was judged invalid, and give voters another opportunity to verify their vote.
  • Enable voters with disabilities to electronically request or receive applications to register to vote or receive an absentee ballot.

This year, the House passed an updated version, which adds several new absentee-related provisions:

  • Require states to prepay the return postage for ballots. Fewer than half of states have laws requiring return postage for ballots to be prepaid, raising a monetary and an inconvenience barrier to voting absentee.
  • Require states to provide secure and accessible ballot drop boxes, equitably distributed across the state, with more drop boxes in more populous counties. Last year, we saw states like Texas reduce the number of drop-off locations to just one per county; this would put an end to that.
  • Require states to begin processing and scanning absentee ballots 14 days prior to Election Day. Election officials in some states were prevented from processing absentee ballots until Election Day, which set the stage for election-related disinformation last year and ultimately helped lead to violence. CDT has previously called for eliminating this unnecessary delay, which this provision does.

Absentee voting became a huge source of controversy, with detractors spreading the myth that it enables mass fraud, or that it would disproportionately help Democrats (a new paper shows it didn’t). But with the COVID-19 pandemic leading to historically high rates of absentee voting, it seems likely that many voters will continue to want the flexibility of voting easily from home. Some state legislators attempting to roll back absentee eligibility are facing resistance from their constituents; for example, one poll found 52% of Iowans are against a proposed effort to limit absentee voting in their state, and only 42% are in favor.

Expanding and improving absentee voting is a great way to improve voter access, while potentially increasing the number of votes cast on hand-marked paper ballots, the gold standard for election auditability. And by spreading voting out over time and space, absentee voting can lessen the impact of a potential Election Day cyber-attack on polling place infrastructure, like e-pollbooks.

The For the People Act appears unlikely to pass the Senate in its current form. And election officials are not happy about every provision in the bill; some requirements appear to be impossible to satisfy, and some requirements don’t come paired with the funding election officials will need.

But sections from bills that don’t pass are often mixed and matched into other bills that do have a chance of passage. Here’s hoping that Congress can pass these much-needed absentee-related provisions on a bipartisan basis. Giving voters more options shouldn’t be controversial.