Voting by Mail: A Time-Honored Tradition in America’s Democracy

The Surge of Mail-In Voting in the Face of COVID-19

Living through the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn countless comparisons to wartime experiences. Now, another parallel emerges: come November, election offices in the United States could find themselves with more than double the number of mailed-in ballots compared to 2016, according to a New York Times analysis.

A Historical Evolution of Voting by Mail

In-person voting on Election Day has long been the norm in the United States. However, over the course of centuries, voting by mail has become an increasingly popular alternative. This shift can largely be attributed to the necessity brought about by wartime circumstances.

Even in the colonial era, traces of absentee voting, often used interchangeably with voting by mail, can be found. For instance, in 17th-century Massachusetts, men residing in homes vulnerable to Indian attacks were eligible to cast their votes from the safety of their own homes. Similarly, during the American Revolution in 1775, Continental Army soldiers’ votes were recorded in writing, as if the men were personally present in Hollis, New Hampshire.

It was during the Civil War, however, that absentee voting truly took root on a large scale. With so many eligible voters serving away from home, the 1864 presidential election witnessed Union soldiers casting their votes in camps and field hospitals, supervised by clerks or state officials. This practice emerged as a result of competition between Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan, as Lincoln sought to secure the votes of soldiers away from home.

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The Widening Scope of Absentee Voting

The concept of accommodating voters unable to be physically present on Election Day extended beyond the Civil War. During World War I, the majority of states allowed soldiers to cast their votes from a distance, particularly during the period of armed conflict. Keyssar’s book highlights Massachusetts’ 1917-1918 Constitutional Convention, where a delegate argued passionately for industry workers, such as railroad employees and traveling salesmen, to be granted the right to vote absentee. This delegate likened the toil and sacrifice of these workers to that of soldiers fighting for the common good.

The advent of industrialization and improved transportation options further reinforced the case for widening access to absentee voting. People were becoming increasingly mobile in the growing national economy. Consequently, certain states began adopting voting measures to accommodate specific populations, such as railroad workers or individuals with health-related conditions. While some laws required witnesses and notary public approval, officials sought ways to ensure that those on the move could exercise their voting rights.

The Shift to No-Excuse Absentee Voting

In the following decades, absentee voting became more accessible to individuals who lacked the ability to vote in person on Election Day. A significant change occurred in 1978 when California became the first state to allow voters to apply for an absentee ballot without providing a specific excuse.

Oregon, on the other hand, remains significant in the history of voting by mail. In 1995, Oregon conducted the first entirely mail-in federal primary election, followed by the first mail-only general election in 1996. Subsequently, Oregon became an all vote-by-mail state after a ballot initiative garnered support from 70% of voters in 2000.

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Widely Adopted Practices and Their Impact

Even prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, certain states were already conducting entirely mail-in elections. Notable examples include Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah. In addition, 29 states and Washington D.C. allowed “no excuse” mail-in absentee voting, while 16 states mandated an excuse for voting by mail. In the 2016 presidential election, approximately 25% of voters cast their votes via mailed ballots.

Contrary to concerns about fraudulent voting, statistics from MIT political scientists analyzing the Heritage Foundation’s Election Fraud Database indicated that only 0.00006% of the 250 million mailed ballots nationwide were fraudulent. Furthermore, a study conducted by scholars at Stanford University’s Democracy and Polarization Lab, examining data from California, Utah, and Washington from 1996 to 2018, found no substantial favoritism towards any political party. Additionally, the study revealed only a modest increase in overall average turnout rates.

In essence, vote-by-mail programs primarily offer convenience to existing voters, rather than attracting a significant number of new voters. Election officials emphasize the safety and security of these programs, assuring American voters that they can place their trust in the process.


Amidst a time of unprecedented uncertainty, voting by mail remains a reliable and time-honored method in America’s democratic process. As the 2020 Election looms, this electoral milestone adds yet another chapter to the enduring history of voting by mail.

Mail-in Voting

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