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Is there a difference between 'absentee' and 'mail-in' voting?

Some states are automatically mailing ballots, but Minnesotans must apply to receive an absentee ballot in the mail.

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — Several KARE 11 viewers have reached out to us wondering about the differences between "absentee voting" and "mail-in voting."

The terms have been used interchangeably by politicians, the press, and everyday people during the 2020 election. 

The use of the phrase "mail-in voting" sometimes references situations where ballots are automatically mailed out to voters; that's compared to absentee voting, where voters must make a request to receive a ballot in the mail.

According to the nonprofit Ballotpedia website, there are five states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, Washington) that currently have laws where every registered voter automatically receives a ballot in the mail for every election, sometimes called "universal mail-in voting." Five additional states (California, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Vermont) are also automatically mailing ballots to all voters in the 2020 general election because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That's not the case for most voters in Minnesota, where absentee voting is an option. According to the Minnesota Secretary of State's office, a voter must request the ballot by filling out an application online or through a paper form in order to receive a ballot in the mail.

RELATED: How to get your Minnesota absentee ballot

Some people might receive an absentee ballot application in the mail without asking, either from the state or voting groups, but that application is not the same thing as a ballot.

RELATED: Ballot or application? How to tell the difference between different election mail

There is one exception in Minnesota: state law does allow some small communities to choose to conduct their elections only by mail, but only outside of the Twin Cities in greater Minnesota. This year, that means about 200,000 small town or rural Minnesota voters could receive a ballot automatically in the mail.

Get more information about voting in the 2020 election in our KARE 11 Voter's Toolkit:

MINNESOTA: 2020 Voter Guide: What to know about Minnesota's elections

WISCONSIN: 2020 Voter Guide: What to know about Wisconsin's elections

If you have questions about the 2020 election, text your question to our KARE to Vote team at 763-797-7215.