13 Burning Mail-In Ballot Questions, Answered

Tiffany Tertipes, Unsplash
Tiffany Tertipes, Unsplash / Tiffany Tertipes, Unsplash

As a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, all 50 states are offering mail-in ballot options for the 2020 election. This type of voting isn’t new to the United States; it dates all the way back to the Civil War. And prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the majority of states allowed registered voters to request absentee or mail-in ballots without an excuse. This year, many states have added fear of COVID-19 infection as a legitimate reason to request a mail-in ballot, which means more people than ever are eligible to vote by mail. If you’re one of the many people who will be filling out a mail-in ballot request for the first time ever this year, here’s what you need to know to make sure your vote counts.

1. How do I get a mail-in ballot?

The answer to this question varies by state. Voters registered in some states will automatically receive a ballot in the mail, while voters in other states will need to request their ballot in advance. Your first step should be confirming that you're registered to vote, which you can do here. If you’re not registered, head to your state’s Board of Elections page to see if you still have time to register to vote in the 2020 election. You can also check out this list of registration and mail-in/absentee ballot deadlines by state.

Nine states mail ballots to voters automatically: Vermont, Nevada, California, New Jersey, Colorado, Hawaii, Utah, Washington, and Oregon. Washington, D.C. also sends mail-in ballots to all registered voters. If you live elsewhere, you can request one online through Vote.org.

2. What is the deadline to request a ballot?

The answer to this question also varies depending on where you’re registered to vote. Some states need to receive your mail-in ballot application 14 days before Election Day 2020, while others don’t have a specified deadline. These deadlines also vary depending on how you apply for your ballot. If you submit your application online or hand-deliver it in person, you will likely be able to buy yourself more time than if you send it in the mail. You can find your state’s mail-in ballot application deadlines here.

Remember that the deadline to apply isn’t the only deadline you need to meet; after receiving your ballot, you’ll also need to make sure it gets to your local election office in time for it to be counted. With this in mind, consider applying for and submitting your mail-in ballot as soon as possible.

3. What is the deadline to mail a ballot?

Most states fall into one of two categories when it comes to mail-in ballot deadlines: The ballot either needs to be received by November 3 or postmarked by November 3. In a couple states, the ballot needs to be received or postmarked by the day before Election Day. You can check your state’s rules here.

Once voters send out their envelope, they don’t have much control over when it’s received. Up to 80 million ballots are expected to go through the postal system this election season. Instead of counting on your ballot to arrive at its destination on time, send it out with more buffer time than you think is necessary. The USPS recommends mailing your ballot at least one week before your state’s deadline, but the earlier you can send it the better.

4. Can I get a replacement for my lost/damaged ballot?

Accidents happen. If you rip your ballot, spill coffee on it, lose it, or never receive it in the first place, you may be able to request a new one. Some counties allow you to request a replacement ballot online. In other places, you may have to visit to your local early voting site in person to get yours. Visit your local Board of Elections website to find out what protocol applies to your area.

5. What should I do if I receive someone else's mail-in ballot?

If you receive a ballot in the mail addressed to someone else, don’t try tracking down the individual yourself. The best thing to do is to return the ballot to the election office where it came from, either by mail or in person. That way, your local Board of Elections will know that the voter never received their ballot, and that you're still waiting for yours.

6. What mistakes should I avoid when filling out my ballot?

Filling in a bubble next to your preferred candidate may sound easy, but it’s a step that many people mess up. Using anything other than black or blue ink, not filling in the oval fully, and/or leaving stray marks on the paper are all simple errors that have the potential to invalidate your vote.

7. Where do I sign my mail-in ballot?

After filling out your ballot, make sure you sign it. In every state, voters mailing their ballots are required to sign an affidavit on the outside of the envelope. And this isn’t the time to scribble your name without paying attention: If your signature doesn’t match the one your state has on record, your vote may be thrown out—so keep it neat!

8. Do I need to send anything else with my ballot?

This year, 13 states are requiring that all or some voters include a photocopy of their ID with their mail-in ballots, and six states are requiring a witness signature. No matter where you’re registered, make sure to carefully read the instructions on your ballot before filling it out, and contact your local election office with any questions.

9. Why did my ballot come with two envelopes?

Voters in Pennsylvania will face an additional hurdle when mailing their ballots. Their votes must be sealed correctly in the two included envelopes: first in the inner “secrecy” envelope and then in the outer envelope. Ballots that aren’t received in the secrecy envelope will be considered “naked,” and therefore invalid.

10. Do I need postage for my mail-in ballot?

Twenty states are including prepaid postage with their mail-in ballots for the 2020 elections. The other 30 states technically require you to provide your own postage, but if you don't happen to have a stamp, that shouldn’t stop you from mailing out your ballot. The USPS is obligated to deliver mail-in ballots—even if they lack the proper postage. If a ballot envelope doesn’t have enough stamps or any stamps at all, the USPS will collect postage from the appropriate Board of Elections.

11. How do I mail my ballot?

You can drop your sealed and signed ballot in a mailbox, just like you would with a regular piece of mail. Many states are also installing secure drop-off boxes specifically for mail-in ballots ahead of the November election. Go to your state's Board of Elections website to see if there’s a ballot drop box in your neighborhood.

12. Can I drop off my ballot off in person?

If think you missed your local mail-in ballot deadline—or if you just want to ensure it arrives in the right place—you have the option to drop off your ballot in person. Nearly every state allows voters to hand-deliver their completed ballot to their local election office. You can find your local election office by searching your state’s Board of Elections or Secretary of State's website. If you won’t be near your local election office any time soon, you can drop off your ballot at any in-person voting location in the country if you’re registered to vote in one of these places: Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Washington, D.C.

13. Can I vote in person?

In-person voting will still take place across the United States on November 3. Many states are also offering early voting in October. (Look for your state’s early voting dates on this list.) If you already mailed in or dropped off your ballot, you won’t be able to cast your vote in person. If you requested a mail-in ballot but then decided you want to vote in person, you may be able to change your voting plan at the last-minute. In most cases, you can take your blank mail-in ballot with you to your polling place on Election Day and exchange it for an in-person ballot. You may also be able to cast a provisional ballot (which will be counted once your voter status if verified) if you forget your mail-in ballot at home. Look up your state or local election office to find the specific rules for your area.