Election 2020: Differences between absentee vs. mail-in ballots

Critics — most prominent among them, President Donald Trump himself — have questioned the security and integrity of mail-in ballots compared to traditional absentee ballots (which are also mailed in). Crow Wing County Administrative Services Director Debby Erickson said there's an explanation for this position, but also gave details on how election officials will ensure the security of the vote amid COVID-19.

Photo illustration by Metro Newspaper Service

Prior to 2020, most Americans probably used the terms “mail ballot” and “absentee ballot” interchangeably, if not at all.

They’re both not in-person voting, right? And the voter has to go through something of a similar process to fill out the ballot, verify their own identity, and mail it to their local precinct, correct? But, there are key differences and these differences have garnered a great deal of scrutiny and criticism — not the least from the president himself — during a chaotic and anxiety-ridden election season. Structural pillars of democracy — from how to vote, when to vote, and the integrity of the vote itself — are tied up in these distinctions.

Deborah Erickson, the administrative services director for Crow Wing County and the county’s chief elections authority, discussed these distinctions and areas of concern during a Sept. 29 phone interview. Voters will be able to vote in person 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3, where they will be required to practice social distancing, practice safe hygiene and wear a mask — as poll staff will do — but if residents prefer to vote by a different method, here’s a breakdown below.

If voters have any questions regarding the process, their voting precinct, or wish to request an absentee ballot, they can contact the Crow Wing County office at 218-824-1051 or . If voters want to track their ballot’s status, they can call or use the tracking tool at The physical mailing address of the Crow Wing County elections office is Historic Courthouse, 326 Laurel St., Suite 22, Brainerd, MN 56401.


Absentee ballots

Technically, there’s no such thing as early voting in the state of Minnesota, Erickson said, but what Minnesotans do have is called no-excuse absentee ballots. In effect, once the voting period begins weeks before the election, citizens have the option to mail in an absentee ballot, or go to their local voting precinct and fill out an absentee ballot in person.

  • The key distinction is absentee ballots have to be requested by the voter.

  • It depends on the voter whether their ballot is mailed in or whether it’s submitted to polling staff on site.

  • Voters have to apply to have an absentee ballot sent to them. They have to verify their personal information — such as proof of residency, personal identification like a driver’s licence, and or the last four digits of their Social Security number — and they have to sign the application and submit it in order for elections staff to send a ballot to them.

  • Absentee ballots cannot be tabulated until, at earliest, 14 days before the election by Minnesota law. In other states, early votes are tabulated once the ballot is submitted.

Mail ballots

Mail ballots are automatically mailed to eligible voters in certain precincts that conduct their elections by mail as an alternative to in-person voting if those precincts so choose, as determined by the city council or town board of those precincts if they meet statutory qualifications.

  • The key distinction from absentee voting is mail ballots are automatically mailed to registered voters living in mail-ballot precincts.

  • To automatically receive a mail ballot, a resident must be a registered voter. This differs from in-person voting, where a voter may cast a ballot if they undergo a same-day registration process in the voting precinct.

  • Residents must vote at least once every four years to keep that registration active. If they have not voted in the last four years, that registration is no longer valid and they need to register again to vote via mail ballots. Other reasons to re-register include if the voter has changed their name or had a change of address since the last time they voted.

  • No mail ballots will be sent to residents who are non-citizens, not registered voters, or have active felonies on their criminal records, such as incomplete provisions of a sentence like prison time, probation, parole or supervised release. Voters are also verified to be alive by checking death records with state and federal agencies during this process. Erickson noted these checks and balances are already present in the traditional process and are checked, rechecked and secured throughout the course of each day.

The controversy

For Erickson, one of the key reasons there’s been so much heated debate over the security of mail ballots compared to traditional absentee ballots comes down to the volunteer nature of requesting absentee ballots. The idea of mailing out ballots to a predetermined set of eligible voters can leave some leery, she said.

“I think part of why (President Donald Trump’s) saying that absentee is safe and mail ballot is not is because in the absentee situation, the voter is asking to have a ballot sent to them; the voter is requesting that a ballot be mailed to them. A voter in a mail ballot precinct doesn't have to take the steps to request the ballot to be mailed to them,” Erickson said. “However, they have to take the steps to register to vote in the first place.”

Erickson said it’s a common misconception that — in the mail ballot process — ballots are just randomly or uniformly mailed to every address in a voting precinct. To receive a ballot, voters must have gone through the effort to register and passed the vetting and verification process that ensures they don’t have active felonies on their record, an ineligible address, or other disqualifiers.

“There is a responsibility on the voter,” Erickson said. “Number one, get registered. Number two, remain registered and keep their registration updated and active. Because of the fact that Minnesota does review our voter rolls continuously and because of the fact that voters who do not keep their registration active, do get purged out of that system every year from the standpoint of becoming inactive … there's more security around that aspect of mail-in ballots.”

As many ballots cannot be counted until Election Day, coupled with a substantial influx of mailed ballots, Erickson said, it will take more time to process ballots than in years past when in-person voting was a much more prevalent factor. For a full seven days after Election Day, pollers are required by law to accept and review all absentee ballots as long as they’re postmarked on Election Day, Nov. 3, at the latest. These results will be updated publicly at the end of each day.

Will Minnesotans know who their new elected officials are by the end of the night as they’re accustomed to? Probably not, with the exception of some lopsided races, Erickson said, and Minnesotans have to exercise patience as polling workers go through the methodical process to ensure each vote is counted and the election is secured.


“We really want to ask voters to have a little bit of patience. If they have already applied for an absentee ballot, or if they live in a mail ballot precinct but they choose that they want to vote that ballot in person — just (for them to) have a little patience and allow that ballot to be delivered to them,” Erickson added. “They can always bring it with them to the courthouse (if they vote in person). That way, we can ensure that we are working within the processes and not issuing new ballots. We want to keep voter confusion to a minimum.”

Following the ballots

“If a voter asks on the status of their ballot, and it says that it was mailed to them on Sept. 24 — which was the first day that we had ballots leave our office — within four or five days they should expect to see that ballot arrive in their mailbox, and they can be tracking when that status will occur,” Erickson said. “Once they've received that ballot, they can then track it after they send it back to us to find out when we get it back in our office.”

“Again,” she continued, “They are able to track once it has gone to review by the election judges on the absentee vote board. Once the ballot reaches that accepted status, then the voter can be assured that their ballot has been counted and that their vote has been cast. Then they are assured that their vote has been cast just like it was put into the machine in the polls on Election Day.”

Erickson explained the following step-by-step process, or lifespan, that a mailed ballot will undergo during this election cycle:

  • Every signature envelope — whether it contains an absentee or mailed-in ballot — will have a unique code attached to it as an identifier. That code is trackable in the voter registration system.

  • When the ballot is mailed out to the voter, it is that code that updates the system with the exact date the ballot has been mailed from a voter’s local elections office. If voters have any questions, they can contact the office to learn exactly when their ballot was sent out.

  • Voters will receive their ballot, they’ll open up the document and fill it out, then mail it back before or on the day of Tuesday, Nov. 3.

  • Ballots are not opened on arrival back to the polling office. They’re stamped as “Received” and updated in the voting ballot system as such. At that point, voters can verify that their ballot has been received.

  • Election judges will decide whether criteria is met to accept a ballot and then the coded status of the ballot will be updated as such.

Questions about voting?

If voters have any questions regarding the process, their voting precinct, or wish to request an absentee ballot, they can contact the Crow Wing County office at 218-824-1051 or . If voters want to track their ballot’s status, they can call or use the tracking tool at The physical mailing address of the Crow Wing County elections office is Historic Courthouse, 326 Laurel St., Suite 22, Brainerd, MN 56401.

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at or 218-855-5859. Follow at .
What To Read Next
Get Local


Must Reads