Voter Rights For Mail-In (Absentee) and In-Person Voting, Part 1

Article written by Attorney Kevin O'Flaherty
Updated on
October 19, 2020

In this article, we will discuss voter rights for vote-by-mail (absentee) and in-person voting, and answer the following questions:


  • What are your rights as a voter?
  • Is voting by mail a right or a privilege?
  • Is it legal for a state or county to impose restrictions or benefits on absentee voting?
  • Is voting mandatory in the U.S.?
  • Does my state allow absentee voting?


This election season already promised to be a wild one, but the coronavirus pandemic threatens to push things into downright crazy and unknown territory. Hyperbole aside, the United States has been faced with a massive increase in demand for mail-in-voting; and many states are stepping up to the challenge, allowing anyone to receive and cast an absentee ballot. Others are expanding access to absentee ballots, but still requiring a reason, such as a doctor’s note, or disability. Finally, a handful of states are doing little to help their constituents vote by mail, and some are even placing restrictions on certain populations looking for in-person voting alternatives. So where does Illinois and the rest of the United States fall on this spectrum? Read on to find out.

Hopefully, these articles will answer your questions and help you better prepare in the time leading up to Election Day. Just to be clear, this article does not exist to make inferences or interpretations on the language surrounding voter rights, absentee ballots, etc, but rather to give our readers a summary of existing information on absentee and in-person voting rights.


What Are Your Rights As A Voter?


Over the years, new laws have been passed that, for the most part, have helped secure the ability to vote for those eligible, and improved the voting process for many. But what are our basic rights on election day? Below is a summary:


  • If you are in line at the polling place and time passes for when the polls normally close, stay in line. You have the right to vote even if the polling place has “closed” according to the official time posted. However, if you arrive after the polls have closed and there is no line, you have potentially missed your opportunity to vote;
  • If you make a mistake on your ballot, you have the right to ask for a new one. If you cast your ballot—by mail or in person—and you later realize you made a mistake, you should still be able to ask for a new ballot at the polling place or follow the directions to receive a new mail-in ballot;
  • If you arrive at the polling place and the machines are down, you have the right to ask for a paper ballot;
  • If a poll worker tells you your name is not on the list of registered voters, you can ask for a provisional ballot. Provisional ballots are checked later on by an election official, and if deemed legal, will be counted.
  • If you arrive at the polling place and one of the polling officers calls into question your citizenship, criminal background, or something else, and denies your eligibility to cast a ballot, immediately call the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE.


There are a host of other rights related to disabled voters, voters that speak English less than “very well,” and those that feel that someone is interfering with their right to vote. If you run into any issues associated with these categories or anything else, call the Election Protection Hotline. You may be reading this and wondering, “Where are the rights for absentee ballots?” Well, the answer is that voting by mail is currently not a “right” but rather a “privilege” under the law. 


Is Voting By Mail A Right Or A Privilege?


There is no federal law guaranteeing the right for someone to cast an absentee ballot. Any laws regarding mail-in voting are on a state-by-state basis. There is legislation being considered—The Universal Right To Vote By Mail Act— that would put all states on the same level, removing existing restrictions placed on mail-in voting in 22 states, but the bill has gone nowhere in nearly a decade.


Is It Legal For A State Or County To Place Restrictions Or Benefits On Absentee Voting?


Because there is no federal law covering mail-in-voting, each state has its own process and rules for requesting, filling out, and submitting an absentee ballot. While a state can’t outright deny an individual an absentee ballot without reason, it can “restrict” or “impede” access to absentee ballots by placing certain guidelines on the absentee ballot process. For example, Missouri amended is vote-by-mail law to allow those above 65 to receive and cast an absentee ballot with no extra restrictions, whereas younger voters must get their absentee ballots notarized, adding an extra barrier of time and possibly money to the process. Currently, Illinois and Iowa will send absentee ballots to anyone who is registered, although Illinois may not automatically send one unless requested. Indiana requires that the person seeking an absentee ballot fill out an application and meet eligibility.


Is Voting Mandatory In The United States?


No, voting is not mandatory, although it is highly encouraged.


Does My State Allow Absentee Voting?


All states allow some form of absentee voting, with the majority having no-excuse absentee voting. The states that require an excuse for voting by mail include Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. 


Check out Part 2 of our “Voter Rights For Mail-in (Absentee) And In-Person Voting” series where we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of voting by mail, qualifying for absentee ballots, and the process of requesting, mailing, and returning an absentee ballot. 


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