By Sarah Gonski
July 24, 2023, 10:30 AM
In recent years, much of the voting cultural wars have focused on one of the more controversial—and widely misunderstood—voting methods: no-excuse absentee voting. No-excuse absentee states allow any voter to vote by absentee ballot, regardless of their reason. Prominent Republicans, including former President Trump, have frequently miscast absentee voting as a partisan tool designed to perpetuate fraud and amplify Democratic turnout. The false rhetoric has filtered into the bloodstream of the GOP’s electorate, with Pew finding that Republican support for no-excuse absentee voting plummeted 19 percentage points between 2018 to 2021. Plainly, rhetoric matters.
Yet, facts do too. The history of absentee voting reflects a bipartisan—and often Republican-led—commitment to providing voters with cost-effective, efficient, and user-friendly government solutions. Recognizing the inherent value of voting mechanisms that are flexible, accessible, and secure, Republicans have been leaders in and proponents of implementing no-excuse absentee voting from the beginning. As we move forward, it is essential to acknowledge and build upon this historical context, repudiating false partisan narratives and rebuilding trust in electoral processes.
Absentee voting dates back to the American Civil War when both the Union and Confederate armies allowed soldiers to cast their votes from the front lines. As early as the 1920s, some states allowed voters to cast absentee ballots if they had specific pre-approved reasons for their absence, such as illness, travel, or military service.
In the 1990s, Republican-led states took significant strides toward broadening voting access by dropping the excuse requirement. With military, elderly, and disabled voters in mind, Republican states like Arizona, Montana, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, and others enacted no-excuse absentee voting. In the early 2000s, Florida, Georgia, and a slew of other states followed suit. This bipartisan (and usually uncontroversial) effort highlighted Republicans’ commitment to expanding voting access for all eligible voters.
These policies have proven popular and effective. No-excuse absentee voting was a good idea then, as it is now, because:
- It’s good government. By spreading voters across multiple days and methods of voting, states can significantly reduce the single-day strain on election administrators. The government saves time and money, and voters face shorter lines and fewer bottlenecks. When coupled with sound policies around absentee ballot pre-processing and confidentiality of early results, states can also speed election results by beginning ballot tabulation before Election Day.
- It’s user-friendly. For military voters, working parents and caregivers, individuals with demanding schedules, or those facing unexpected circumstances, no-excuse absentee voting offers unparalleled flexibility. It also expands access to the elderly and other citizens who may be physically unable to visit a polling station because of mobility challenges or because they reside in rural areas or overseas. By embracing flexible voting options, Republicans can conserve taxpayer resources while creating a more user-friendly democratic process.
- It’s secure. Numerous studies and audits have consistently shown that instances of voter fraud are exceedingly rare. Critical security checks are carefully calibrated and put in place. States implement rigorous identity checks, signature matching, and secure ballot drop-off procedures to maintain the integrity of the electoral process.
The recent shift in how Republican leaders have viewed the policy—despite its popularity and success—has been most on display in Arizona. Under solid Republican leadership, Arizona adopted no-excuse absentee voting in the early 1990s. There was little partisan rancor during policy debates, and the law had nearly unanimous support. Absentee voting quickly became popular among voters. By 2007, the state established a permanent early voter list, which automatically allowed voters to receive ballots in the mail for each election. Results were dramatic: for the 2016 presidential election, 70% of Arizonans voted absentee. In the COVID-afflicted 2020 election, that number rose to nearly 90%. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the contentious 2020 election and amidst a cascade of misinformation aimed at absentee voting, the Arizona Republican Party has been hell-bent on repealing its own wildly popular policy.
Arizona has by no means been alone. During this past legislative cycle, Republicans have sponsored bills to dramatically curtail or eliminate no-excuse absentee voting in at least five other states.1 Idaho, Oklahoma, and Virginia even saw multiple standalone bills. The heartening news is that none of the bills got very far, at least partially because they lacked support from fellow Republicans.2
Hopefully, the tide is turning. Republicans have long championed no-excuse absentee voting for good reasons: it enhances the accessibility, efficiency, and security of our elections.
Recentering today’s hyper-partisan discourse in history is crucial to dispel the misconception that no-excuse absentee voting solely benefits one political party. It does not; if anything, studies suggest that no-excuse absentee voters are slightly more likely to vote Republican. As we navigate the present and future challenges, it is imperative to repudiate false narratives, acknowledge the historical context of these measures, and continue to foster a bipartisan commitment to a more user-friendly democracy.
- H.R.B. 205, 67th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Idaho 2023) and H.R.B. 75, 67th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Idaho 2023), available here and here; S.B. 260, 2023 Leg., Reg. Sess. (Kan. 2023), available here; H.B. 1217, 98th Leg., Reg. Sess. (S.D. 2023), available here; S.B. 1016, 59th Leg., 1st Sess. (Okla. 2023) and S.B. 897, 59th Leg., 1st Sess. (Okla. 2023), available here and here; H.R.B. 1847, 2023 Leg., 1st Spec. Sess. (Va. 2023) and S.B. 884, 2023 Leg., Reg. Sess. (Va. 2023), available here and here. ↩︎
- In both South Dakota and Idaho, several Republican legislators voted against the bills, and in Kansa and Oklahoma the bills failed to garner even a single committee assignment. ↩︎