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How do elections work? 

"Since the early 1990s, the number of voters who cast their ballots prior to Election Day has steadily risen from less than a tenth to about a third. The rise is fueled by two phenomenon. More states are offering early voting options, and once a state adopts early voting more people vote early as part of their election regimen...

As voters cast their ballots prior to Election Day, they may be surprised to learn they are walking in the shoes of the nation’s founders. At the founding, voting was held over several days so that rural voters could have ample time to travel to town and county courthouses to cast their ballots. An extended voting period could not be disrupted greatly by unexpected weather that made rural river crossings impassable. In other words, early voting was matter of convenience. Two centuries later, convenience continues to be the rallying cry of early voting advocates.

Just as an argument for early voting echoes through time, so does an argument against. In 1845, the federal government set a uniform, single day for voting for president: the familiar first Tuesday following the first Monday in November. Among the arguments for a single day was that it would prevent people from crossing state lines to vote more than once. Today, politicians speak of early voting as one way by which elections can be 'rigged.'"

Michael P. McDonald
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Early Voting


"Fifty-two percent of adults say they will vote early — with 19 percent saying they will vote early in person and 33 percent more saying they will vote by mail. About a third of adults, 33 percent, say they will vote in person on Election Day, and 11 percent say they might not vote at all."

Melissa Holzberg and Ben Kamisa
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"Even the scattered examples of absentee voting (the terms are often used interchangeably) that can be traced to the colonial era tend to fit the pattern: In 17th-century Massachusetts, men could vote from home if their homes were “vulnerable to Indian attack,” according to historian Alex Keyssar’s book The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, and the votes of some Continental Army soldiers were presented in writing “as if the men were present themselves” in Hollis, N.H., in 1775 during the American Revolution.

But it was during the Civil War that America first experimented with absentee voting on a large scale, as so many of the men who were eligible to vote were away from home fighting. During the 1864 presidential election—in which Republican incumbent President Abraham Lincoln defeated Democratic candidate George McClellan—Union soldiers voted in camps and field hospitals, under the supervision of clerks or state officials."

Olivia B. Waxman
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Absentee/Vote by Mail

"In the 1980s, California became the first state to allow eligible voters to request absentee ballots for any reasons at all, including their own convenience. By 2018, 27 states had adopted no-excuse absentee laws...According to respondents to the 2018 EAVS, 26% of voters in no-excuse states cast their ballots by mail, compared to 9% in states that still required an excuse...


Since California instituted no-excuse absentee voting, ten states have taken the next step and allowed all residents to request an absentee ballot for every election. These permanent absentee states now have even greater use of absentee ballots. In 2018, the EAVS reported that 68% of voters in states with permanent absentee laws voted with an absentee ballot." 

MIT Election Lab
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"Most elections agencies maintain consistent polling places so voters won’t be confused about where to go. If you always vote at a nearby high school, that’s probably still where you’ll go if you vote on Election Day. If the precinct moved — some will, because of the pandemic or a lack of poll workers — the information should be available on the local elections agency website. Competent elections administrators will send a postcard a few weeks before Election Day reminding registered voters where to cast ballots.

Depending on where you live, it may be necessary to show government-issued photo identification to poll workers. They will have a list of the registered voters in your precinct.

If you’re not already registered to vote, roughly 20 states and Washington, D.C., allow same-day voter registration at the polls, with identity requirements that vary by state."

Reid J. Epstein
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In-Person Voting


Provisional ballots ensure that voters are not excluded from the voting process due to an administrative error. They provide a fail-safe mechanism for voters who arrive at the polls on Election Day and whose eligibility to vote is uncertain. 

Also referred to as “challenge ballots” or “affidavit ballots” in some states, they are required by the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). When there is uncertainty about a voter’s eligibility—the potential voter’s name is not on the voter rolls, a required identification document isn’t available or other issues—the election official is required to offer the voter a provisional ballot instead of a regular ballot.

In nearly all of the states, after being cast, the provisional ballot is kept separate from other ballots until after the election. A determination is then made as to whether the voter was eligible to vote, and therefore whether the ballot is to be counted. Generally, a board of elections or local election officials will investigate the provisional ballots within days of the election. Since this is an additional administrative step, a large number of provisional ballots can increase costs for jurisdictions."

National Conference of State Legislatures
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