Early voting is designed to allow voters to cast their ballots at a convenient time and location. Approximately half of all U.S. states make provisions for early voting. Early votes are most often cast at an election official’s office. However, some states offer voting at malls, schools or other satellite locations. The votes are generally cast on ballots that are identical to Election Day ballots.
Each state is free to set its own policies for early voting. In general, any eligible voter may take advantage of early voting. The voting period varies between states but is generally a 10 to 12 day period immediately prior to Election Day.
Absentee voting is a means of voting by mail for registered voters. Every state offers some form of absentee voting, although policies vary widely. Several states offer unrestricted absentee voting, in which any registered voter is permitted to cast an absentee ballot for any reason. These states often post their absentee ballots on their websites, allowing voters to simply download and print the ballot, fill it out and return it.
Many states permit absentee voting only for specified reasons. Casting a ballot in these states is typically a two-stage process. First, the application for an absentee ballot must be filled out and returned. If the application is approved, then the ballot will be sent to the voter. Allowable reasons for absentee voting typically include temporary absence from the state and hospitalization or doctor-prescribed bed rest.
Each state is free to set its own guidelines for the receipt and counting of absentee ballots. The deadline for receipt is typically the day before Election Day, although several states allow Election Day receipt. Deadlines for vote counting vary widely as well.
Due to the potential for fraud in absentee voting, many states require that ballots be signed by a witness prior to their return. Some states go so far as to require absentee ballots to be notarized. It is not clear whether this procedure significantly impacts voting fraud.
Although it is rare, some states are beginning to allow absentee ballots to be returned by email. Some advocates are hopeful that this is the first step towards internet voting, which has become popular in Switzerland and Estonia.