How to vote by mail in 2020Everything you need to know to get your ballot on time and make sure it gets counted.
By Cameron Peters@firstname.lastname@example.org Updated Sep 8, 2020, 9:36am EDTVox answers your biggest questions about the 2020 US presidential election, which could be one of the most consequential of our lifetimes.
Like just about every other facet of life in America, Election Day is going to look a little bit different in 2020. Though voters will still go to the polls, at least in most states, a record number of people are expected to vote by mail from the comfort of their homes.
But while in a normal election you probably just need to know two dates — when to register to vote by, and what day the election is — there are a few more to keep track of if you plan to vote by mail this November.
Vox is here to help.
First, make sure you’re registered — some states’ relevant deadlines are as early as October 4 (many have later deadlines if you are voting in person). Then you should know what types of voting your state allows, and where it falls on the spectrum of making it easy (or hard) for voters to cast their ballots by mail.
Though only a few states conduct their elections solely through the mail, the vast majority of American states and territories have expanded absentee voting during the pandemic to permit any voter to cast a ballot by mail. Some, however, still have strict requirements for who can get an absentee ballot.
Tim Ryan Williams/VoxSpecifically, most states require that you submit an absentee ballot request (absentee voting is functionally the same thing as mail-in voting, despite what President Donald Trump may say). Then it’s a good idea to know when you can expect your ballot to show up, and of course when you need to return it so that it’s counted. For ballot requests and/or returns, remember the relevant deadline may be for receipt, not postmarking.
Treat the deadlines with extreme caution, though: The USPS warned 46 states and the District of Columbia in late July this year that the anticipated surge of absentee voting could be such that some ballots arrive too late to be counted. What’s more, Trump’s unfounded animus against mail-in voting and changes at the US Postal Service could make things even harder. None of that is to dissuade you from voting by mail, but it should underscore the critical importance of requesting your ballot early and voting early.
Some more words of warning: The rules aren’t totally settled in some places. And there are a lot of active lawsuits over state election laws right now, some of which are trying to make it easier to vote absentee and others that are trying to cut back on it. It’s always a good idea to check with your local elections office about deadlines and rules that may vary by county; rules for military and overseas voters vary, too. Finally, be sure to fill out and seal your ballot carefully, as it may be rejected if it’s missing a requirement like a matching signature. In several states, certification by a witness or notary may be required.
Tim Ryan Williams/VoxIf you’re not sure how you plan to vote — in many states, early in-person voting is also an option, as is depositing your absentee ballot in a secure ballot dropbox! — then Vox’s Jen Kirby has the comprehensive voting guide for you. (Note: In some states, you may have to vote with a provisional ballot if you request a mail ballot but want to vote in person.)
But if you are planning to vote by mail, Vox has collected the dates you need to know — deadlines to register to vote (if you want to vote by mail), deadlines to apply for an absentee ballot, dates when ballots are expected to go out to voters, and deadlines to return your ballot — right here.
Read on for those dates in all 50 states and Washington, DC, organized by how easy or difficult it is to vote by mail in each. Or go ahead and do a page “find” search to see your state deadlines quickly. Again, it’s best to get started well before the deadlines to account for mailing windows, and these dates and rules may vary and are subject to change. Check with a local election official if you have any questions about how to vote.
The vote-by-mail statesIf you live in Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, or Washington, you’re in luck. All five states already use universal vote-by-mail systems, so, pandemic notwithstanding, not much has changed. If you’re registered to vote, a ballot should show up in your mailbox — you just need to get it back in the mail, or into a ballot dropbox, early enough that it’s received by your state’s deadline — or well before it.
That’s not to say you couldn’t go vote in-person on Election Day if you wanted to — voting centers or county elections offices in all five states allow you to cast a vote day-of if you so choose — but voting by mail is more readily accessible.
Here are the deadlines you need to know:
In Nevada and New Jersey, things have been complicated by pending Trump campaign lawsuits that seek to block the states from sending an absentee ballot to every registered voter. As Vox’s Ian Millhiser points out, there are plenty of reasons to doubt that effort will succeed, but it’s worth keeping an eye on as Election Day draws closer.
In any case, if you live in one of these states and you’re registered to vote, you should have an absentee ballot coming your way ahead of the November election. Here’s when you can expect them, and when they need to be returned by to be counted:
In some cases, like Iowa, every registered voter will be sent an absentee ballot application to fill out if they wish. In other states, you might need to seek out an application on the state’s election website (frequently found on the secretary of state’s site).
Montana is somewhat of a strange case: In addition to having no-excuse absentee voting, counties have the option of switching to something more similar to universal mail-in voting in the pandemic. Most have done so, though all will have in-person polling places open as well.
And while some of the following states always allow for no-excuse absentee voting, others in this category have only recently adopted that policy in response to Covid-19. Yet others, such as Alabama and Kentucky, still technically require an excuse — but coronavirus concerns are enough.
One last thing: Several states, like Wyoming and Minnesota, don’t have a ballot request deadline to speak of, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to do it early. Just because you can request a ballot up to Nov. 2 doesn’t mean it’ll show up in time for you to vote it.
In some cases, that could change — pending legislation in South Carolina could expand access to absentee ballots to everyone. But for now, here’s what you need to know to vote by mail in these six states: