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How to Vote With an Absentee Ballot

African-American woman receiving voting envelope
Visualspace / Getty

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the process of voting looked much different in 2020 than in years past. Nearly half of Americans sent in their votes by mail, rather than casting their ballot in person at a local polling place.

Voting with an absentee ballot — also called voting by mail — 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. In many states, you’ll have to make sure you register for mail-in voting before the November election.

The election is quickly approaching, and many people are wondering how to vote with an absentee ballot. 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 October 2022, the states that automatically send a mail-in ballot to every resident include:

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

Additionally, Nebraska and North Dakota allow counties to choose to conduct elections by mail, so some residents may automatically get a ballot in the mail.

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.
  • Check your state’s deadline for absentee ballots
  • 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.

Some states require a valid excuse

Voting with an absentee ballot isn’t a guarantee in every state. While 27 states offer “no-excuse” absentee voting — meaning you don’t need a reason to request an absentee ballot — some require an “excuse” like illness, work, or travel. Here are the states that require a valid reason:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • Puerto Rico
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Virgin Islands
  • West Virginia

Know your absentee voting deadline

In most states, mail-in votes must be received by Election Day — Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. 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. The USPS encourages all voters to mail back their ballot no later than one week before their state’s deadline.

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.

Ways to submit your 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.

The bottom line

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

  • 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).

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