13 Burning Mail-In Ballot Questions, Answered

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 mail-in or absentee 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. We also have a list of registration and mail-in ballot deadlines by state here.

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, 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.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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Why Does the Supreme Court Have Nine Justices?

Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States // Public Domain

Some facets of the U.S. government—like presidential terms and post offices—were written into the original Constitution after (often lengthy) deliberations by the Founding Fathers. The number of Supreme Court justices was not one of those things.

The document did establish a Supreme Court, and it stated that the president should appoint its judges; it also mentioned that a “Chief Justice shall preside” if the president gets impeached. Since it was left up to Congress to work out the rest of the details, they passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which outlined an entire court system and declared that the Supreme Court should comprise one chief justice and five associate justices. As History.com explains, they landed on six because the justices would have to preside over federal circuit courts, one of which was located in each state. Traveling wasn’t quick or easy in the horse-and-carriage days, so Congress wanted to minimize each justice’s jurisdiction. They split the courts into three regions, and assigned two justices to each region.

According to Maeva Marcus, director of the Institute for Constitutional History at George Washington University Law School, the even number of justices was a non-issue. “They never even thought about it, because all the judges were Federalists and they didn’t foresee great disagreement,” she told History.com. “Plus, you didn’t always have all six justices appearing at the Supreme Court for health and travel reasons.”

Over the next 80 years, the number of Supreme Court justices would fluctuate for two reasons: the addition of federal circuit courts, and presidents’ partisan motives. John Adams and his Federalist Congress reduced the number to five with the Judiciary Act of 1801, which they hoped would prevent Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson from getting to fill a seat after he took office that year. By the following year, Jefferson’s Congress had passed another judicial act that returned the number of justices to six, and they upped it to seven after forming another circuit court in 1807.

The nation grew significantly during the early 19th century, and Congress finally added two new circuit courts—and with them, two new Supreme Court seats—during Andrew Jackson’s presidential tenure in 1837. Republican Abraham Lincoln then briefly increased the number of justices to 10 in order to add another abolitionist vote, but Congress shrunk it to seven in 1866 to keep Andrew Johnson from filling seats with Democrats. As soon as Republican Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Johnson, Congress set the number back to nine, where it’s remained ever since.

Sketched portraits of the U.S. Supreme Court justices through 1897.Popular and Applied Graphic Art Print Filing Series, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1911, Congress did away with circuit courts altogether, so the number of Supreme Court justices stopped being contingent upon their expansion (though each justice does still oversee a region to help with occasional tasks). As for presidents shifting the number to serve their own goals, it’s now looked down upon as “packing the court.” When Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to increase it to 15 in the 1930s to push his New Deal through the Supreme Court, the Senate opposed the bill by a whopping 70 to 20 votes.

In short, the depth of the Supreme Court’s bench changed a lot in America’s early years not only because the country was expanding, but also because the federal government was still testing out its system of checks and balances. And though presidents do still appoint justices based on their own political party, we’ve gotten used to the idea that the Supreme Court is, at least ideologically, supposed to be unbiased. If Congress and the president kept up the habit of adding and subtracting justices at will, it would tarnish this ideal.

“If Congress increases the size of the Supreme Court for transparently partisan political reasons, it would cement the idea the justices are little more than politicians in robes, and that the court is little more than an additional—and very powerful—arm through which partisan political power can be exercised,” Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, wrote for NBC News. “Indeed, that Congress has not revisited the size of the court in 150 years is a powerful testament to just how ingrained the norm of nine has become—and how concerned different political constituencies have been at different times about preserving the court’s power.”

[h/t History.com]