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How to Vote By Mail

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Everyone knows that the 2020 presidential election is an important one. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the process of voting will look much different than in years past. A majority of Americans will be sending mail-in votes, rather than casting their ballot in-person at a local polling place.

Voting by mail — also called absentee voting — is a new process for many people, but it’s not a new concept. In fact, residents in Washington, Utah, Oregon, Hawaii, and Colorado vote by mail in every election. However, there are some hurdles to absentee voting. Not only can ballots get lost in the mail, but the USPS® recently decommissioned some collection boxes, and warned that service delays could keep absentee ballots from getting delivered in time for Election Day.

The election is quickly approaching, and many people are wondering how to vote by mail. The process is very simple, but it’s important to be prepared.

Apply for an absentee ballot

To vote by mail, the first step is to apply for an absentee ballot. Some states send residents an absentee ballot by default. If you live in a state that does not automatically provide an absentee ballot, you’ll need to request one. As of August 2020, the states that automatically send a mail-in ballot to every resident include:

  • California
  • Washington D.C.
  • New Jersey
  • Vermont
  • Nevada
  • Hawaii
  • Oregon
  • Washington
  • Colorado
  • Utah

If you live in a state that does not automatically provide a mail-in vote ballot, you can apply for one online through your state’s board of elections. Although the exact process is different in every state, here is an overview of the general process:

  • Make sure you’re registered to vote in your state. If you’ve recently moved, you’ll need to change your voter registration.
  • Visit your state’s board of elections website.
  • Download and print the absentee ballot application online.
  • Fill out the application, double checking that your name, party affiliation, and voter address are correct.
  • Send back the application electronically, via mail, or deliver a hard copy in-person.
  • Wait for confirmation that your application has been received.

Know your absentee voting deadline

Although a majority of Americans are anticipated to be sending mail-in votes this year, there is still a deadline for submitting your ballot. In almost every state, the deadline for submitting mail-in votes is Election Day—Tuesday, Nov. 3 However, that doesn’t mean you should wait until the last possible second to mail your ballot. Consider Election Day the last day you can vote, not the first.

Because of USPS delays due to COVID-19, the postal service is strongly recommending that voters request their mail-in ballot at least 15 days before Election Day, which is ideally no later than Monday, Oct. 19. The USPS encourages all voters to mail back their ballot no later than one week before their state’s deadline.

This year, mailing your ballot too close to Election Day means that your vote might not be counted. Only about half of the states accept absentee votes that are received after Election Day. If your ballot arrives after Election Day, there’s a chance it won’t be counted, making your vote essentially invalid.

How to vote by mail

Voting by mail is a new process for many Americans. However, it’s pretty simple, especially if your state automatically provides an absentee ballot. If you’re concerned about getting your vote in the mail on-time, don’t worry—there are many different ways you can turn in your ballot. Here’s how to vote by mail:

USPS collection box

The fastest and easiest way to submit your ballot is by dropping it off at a USPS blue collection box. The USPS recommends mailing your ballot with multiple stamps, or as First Class Mail, to avoid postage issues. If you can’t find a collection box, you can schedule a pick up online with USPS, or put your ballot in with your outgoing mail.

In-person drop-off

The other option is to drop off your ballot in-person. You can hand-deliver your ballot at your local post office, which is the easiest option if you have questions about postage. You can also deliver your ballot to your county’s election office, county clerk’s office, or at a polling place during early voting or on Election Day. If you’re concerned about your ballot getting delivered before Election Day, dropping it off at a physical location—like the clerk’s office or a polling location—is your best option.

The bottom line

If you’re wondering how to vote by mail, you’re not alone. Voting by mail is very easy, but there’s a few important things to know. First, request an absentee ballot from your state’s department of elections at least 15 days before Election Day, and aim to mail it back no later than 10 days before the state’s ballot deadline. You can either drop off your ballot at a USPS collection box, bring it to your local post office, deliver it to your local elections office, or drop it off at a polling location.

Frequently asked questions

How do I apply to vote by mail?

If you live in a state that does not automatically provide absentee ballots, you can request one online. Visit your state’s department of elections website, download the application, and mail it back to the address provided (usually your local office of elections or county clerk).

Are there any states that don’t allow absentee voting?

Every state allows absentee voting, but not every state allows voters to cast a mail-in ballot without a valid excuse for not being able to vote in-person. Currently, residents in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Indiana, South Carolina, and Tennessee can only vote absentee if they have an approved excuse, and fear of contracting COVID-19 is not one of them.

Can I be sure my ballot arrives on time?

Unfortunately, there isn’t any way to guarantee that your ballot will arrive on time if you send it via USPS, besides mailing it as early as possible. For extra assurance, you can always hand-deliver your ballot to your location office of election or a polling place where you can avoid the mail altogether.

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