Mail-in voting: How to vote by mail, fraud concerns, state deadlines and more

mail in voting
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Mail-in voting has become a controversial issue in recent months, both due to concerns over safely voting during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump's attacks against mail-in voting and delivery delays by the United States Postal Service. Trump railed against mail-in voting again in late July, even threatening a lawsuit against Nevada for passing a universal vote-by-mail law.

Millions of people want to learn about absentee ballots and mail-in voting since social distancing is much more difficult at crowded polling stations. And as the pandemic continues, many states are expanding mail-in voting procedures, so understanding them is key to participating in this November's presidential election.

In 2020, all U.S. states allow voting by mail via absentee ballots for certain people in certain circumstances. A handful of states send a mail ballot to every registered voter, no request necessary. In some states, voters can ask for an absentee ballot without an excuse (like being sick or traveling). But other states require a specific excuse. Vote.org (opens in new tab) has a handy tool to see what your state’s rules are.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also led many states to update their mail-in voting laws and regulations. President Donald Trump has been vocal on Twitter about his opposition to such expansions, even though he is a registered Florida voter who uses an absentee ballot. Vice President Mike Pence has also cast absentee ballots.

Recent changes at the USPS have also led many experts to worry that delays in mail delivery will mean that ballots will not be received in time to be counted for the election. 

Here’s a rundown of everything you need to know about how to vote by mail, including whether the process is safe, legal and fraud-free.

How to vote by mail: What are absentee ballots?

Mail-in voting is conducted through absentee ballots, which are mailed to voters. The voter receives a ballot via the mail, fills it out and can return it by mail or submit it in person.

Voting by mail first started during the Civil War, so that both Union and Confederate soldiers could cast absentee ballots from the battlefield that were counted back at home. In the late 1900s, some states began allowing civilians to vote by absentee ballot if they were sick or away from home. Congress also expanded military mail-in voting laws during World War II to accommodate soldiers overseas. 

In the 1980s, California became the first state to permit registered voters to request an absentee ballot for any reason, including convenience. By 2018, 27 states had followed suit in sanctioning no-excuse absentee voting. Currently, in 2020, there are five states that conduct voting entirely by mail.

While mail-in voting sounds like it relies completely on USPS mail delivery, that is not the case. In most states, voters can drop off an absentee ballot to a drop box or other location, such as a local government office. Consult your county election supervisor's official website to learn where you can drop off a mail-in ballot. That way, even if USPS mail is delayed, you can be sure that your ballot will be counted for the election.

Is mail-in voting safe?

Voting by mail is safe, legal and mostly fraud-free. It is a practice that exists by law in every U.S. state. In the 2018 midterms, about 25 percent of all voters voted by mail, more than double the number from 20 years ago. However, the coronavirus pandemic and President Donald Trump have each raised uncertainty around absentee ballots. 

The COVID-19 crisis has heightened interest and awareness in the topic of mail-in voting. Whether they’re immunocompromised, generally anxious or practicing strict social distancing, many voters are wary of going to their local polling stations, which can be crowded and located at indoor facilities like schools. In a recent Pew Research Center poll (opens in new tab), almost 75 percent of Americans supported allowing everyone to vote by mail during the pandemic. 

The popularity of absentee voting has led 46 states to expand it to all eligible voters. It’s a bipartisan effort, since 24 of the states have Democratic governors and 22 have Republican governors.

However, Republicans oppose universal mail-in voting, led by President Trump. He often tweets criticisms about expanding the practice, even though he himself votes by absentee ballot in Florida (he has said that it’s only OK if the person is sick or away from home). 

Is mail-in voting subject to fraud?

Trump has been criticizing mail-in voting for months, claiming it leads to widespread voter fraud. He is constantly tweeting these rants, so much that Twitter has begun adding a fact-checking label to Trump’s tweets (the label leads to this message (opens in new tab)). 

Trump has even mused about delaying the election because of mail-in voting and his false claims about its effect on the integrity of the results.

Trump does not have the power to delay the election. The Constitution gives that power solely to Congress.

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Many election experts say absentee ballot fraud is minuscule and not statistically meaningful (though the fraud risk is slightly greater than in-person voting). In an op-ed for The Hill (opens in new tab), Amber McReynolds, a former Colorado election official and now CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, and Charles Stewart, director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, examined the data and found only one case per state every six or seven years — a fraud rate of 0.00006%. They wrote, “There is no evidence that mail-balloting results in rampant voter fraud, nor that election officials lack the knowledge about how to protect against abuses.”

Trump has also claimed that the expansion of voting by mail helps Democrats and targets himself and other Republicans. However, in an op-ed for The New York Times (opens in new tab), a group of political science researchers presented a different picture. They said, “Looking at voters by political party, we find that Democrats and Republicans benefit about the same amount: around 8 percentage points.”

Mail-in voting does increase turnout. The researchers explained that election turnout increases “among everyone, especially the historically disenfranchised: young people, voters of color, less-educated people and blue-collar workers.” A report by The Hill (opens in new tab) shows that turnout exploded in four of the eight states that held primaries the first week of June. Iowa had its highest turnout for a primary ever, thanks to a 1,000 percent increase in absentee ballots.

How to vote by mail in your state

All 50 states allow absentee voting in certain circumstances. Absentee voting laws differ by each state, so be sure to check your state’s election board website or Vote.org to find out how you can vote by mail. 

Even before the pandemic, five states conducted their elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington. In these vote-by-mail states, ballots are mailed out to all eligible voters for every election. The voter marks the ballot and mails it back. However, voters can also choose to cast a ballot in person at a polling place on Election Day.

Pre-pandemic, 29 states and the District of Columbia allowed no-excuse absentee voting. This means you don’t require any kind of excuse (illness, being out of town). You can request an absentee ballot simply for convenience or just because you want one.

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • District of Columbia
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Pre-pandemic, 16 states require a valid excuse for absentee voting. Valid excuses generally include: the voter’s absence from their home county; illness or physical disability; religious observance; having to work during polling hours; or non-felony incarceration.

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • West Virginia

Because of the pandemic, as of early June 2020, many states have changed their absentee voting laws. Some are now mailing ballots to all registered voters. Others are permitting  COVID-19 precaution to be a valid excuse when filling out an absentee ballot request form. Again, check with your state’s election authority for more details. These states have made recent changes:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • District of Columbia
  • Georgia
  • Iowa
  • Maryland
  • Michigan 
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • West Virginia

Vote by mail deadlines by state

Vote by mail deadlines vary throughout the process and by state.

To get an absentee ballot, you can request one via:

  • Mail (except the ones that preemptively send a ballot to every registered voter)
  • Online portal: Delaware, D.C., Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia.
  • Phone: Arizona, Florida, Maine, Mississippi, Vermont and Wyoming

Here are absentee ballot deadlines, state by state:

ALABAMA
Application: 5 days before Election Day (in person or by mail)
Ballot due: Postmarked 1 day before Election Day, received by noon Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 3
More about voting by mail in Alabama (opens in new tab)

ALASKA
Application: 10 days before Election Day (in person, by mail or online)
Ballot due: Postmarked by Election Day, received 10 days after Election Day
Presidential primary date: April 4 (Democratic only)
More about voting by mail in Alaska (opens in new tab)

ARIZONA
Application: 11 days before Election Day (in person or by mail)
Ballot due: Received by 7 p.m. on Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 17 (Democratic only)
More about voting by mail in Arizona (opens in new tab)

ARKANSAS
Application: 1 day before Election Day (in person), 7 days before Election Day (by mail or online)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 3
More about voting by mail in Arkansas (opens in new tab)

CALIFORNIA
Application:
On Election Day (in person), 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Postmarked by Election Day and received within 3 days of Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 3
More about voting by mail in California (opens in new tab)

COLORADO
Application:
On Election Day (in person or online), 8 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 3
More about voting by mail in Colorado (opens in new tab)

CONNECTICUT
Application:
1 day, but recommended at least 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: August 11 (rescheduled from April 28)
More about voting by mail in Connecticu (opens in new tab)t

DELAWARE
Application: Before 12 noon the day before Election Day (in person), 4 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: July 7 (rescheduled from April 28)
More about voting by mail in Delaware (opens in new tab)

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
Application: 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: June 2
More about voting by mail in DC (opens in new tab)

FLORIDA
Application:
1 day before Election Day (in person), 10 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: By 7 p.m. on Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 17
More about voting by mail in Florida (opens in new tab)

GEORGIA
Application: 4 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: June 9 (rescheduled from March 24)
More about voting by mail in Georgia (opens in new tab)

HAWAII
Application: 7 days before Election Day (in person or by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: April 4 (Democratic only)
More about voting by mail in Hawaii (opens in new tab)

IDAHO
Application: 4 days before Election Day (in person), 11 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 10
More about voting by mail in Idaho (opens in new tab)

ILLINOIS
Application: 1 day before Election Day (in person), 5 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Postmarked by Election Day and received 14 days after Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 17
More about voting by mail in Illinois (opens in new tab)

INDIANA
Application: 1 day before Election Day (in person), 12 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: By noon on Election Day
Presidential primary date: June 2
More about voting by mail in Indiana (opens in new tab)

IOWA
Application: 1 day before Election Day (in person, unless the polls open at noon; otherwise, you may cast an absentee ballot at the county auditor's office from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Election Day), 10 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Postmarked one day before Election Day and received 6 days after Election Day
Presidential primary date: Feb. 3 (caucus)
More about voting by mail in Iowa (opens in new tab)

KANSAS
Application: 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: May 2 (Democratic only)
More about voting by mail in Kansas (opens in new tab)

KENTUCKY
Application:
7 days before Election Day (in person, by mail or online)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: June 23 (rescheduled from May 19)
More about voting by mail in Kentucky (opens in new tab)

LOUISIANA
Application: 4 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: 1 day before Election Day (most voters). Election Day (hospitalized voters).
Presidential primary date: July 11 (rescheduled from April 4)
More about voting by mail in Louisiana (opens in new tab)

MAINE
Application: 5 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 3
More about voting by mail in Maine (opens in new tab)

MARYLAND
Application: 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Postmarked on or before Election Day and received by 10am, 10 days after Election Day
Presidential primary date: June 2
More about voting by mail in Maryland (opens in new tab)

MASSACHUSETTS
Application: 1 day, but recommended at least 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 3
More about voting by mail in Massachusetts (opens in new tab)

MICHIGAN
Application: 1 day before Election Day (in person), 4 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 10
More about voting by mail in Michigan (opens in new tab)

MINNESOTA
Application: 1 day, but recommended at least 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 3
More about voting by mail in Minnesota (opens in new tab)

MISSISSIPPI 
Application: 8 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Received 1 day before Election Day (by mail); Received 3 days before Election Day (in person).
Presidential primary date: March 10
More about voting by mail in Mississippi (opens in new tab)

MISSOURI
Application: 1 day before Election Day (in person), 13 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 10
More about voting by mail in Missouri (opens in new tab)

MONTANA
Application:
1 day, but recommended at least 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: June 2
More about voting by mail in Montana (opens in new tab)

NEBRASKA
Application: 11 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: May 12
More about voting by mail in Nebraska (opens in new tab)

NEVADA
Application: 14 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: Feb. 22 (caucus, Democratic only)
More about voting by mail in Nevada (opens in new tab)

NEW HAMPSHIRE
Application: No specific deadline. Recommended at least 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: Feb. 11
More about voting by mail in New Hampshire (opens in new tab)

NEW JERSEY
Application: 1 day before Election Day (in person), 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: July 7 (rescheduled from June 2)
More about voting by mail in New Jersey (opens in new tab)

NEW MEXICO
Application: 4 days before Election Day (in person, by mail and online)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: June 2
More about voting by mail in New Mexico

NEW YORK
Application: 1 day before Election Day (in person), 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Postmarked 1 day before Election Day and received 7 days after Election Day. Voted ballots can also be turned in by hand on Election Day
Presidential primary date: June 23 (rescheduled from April 28)
More about voting by mail in New York (opens in new tab)

NORTH CAROLINA
Application: 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Postmarked by Election Day and received by 3 days after Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 3
More about voting by mail in North Carolina (opens in new tab)

NORTH DAKOTA
Application: No specific deadline. Recommended at least 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Postmarked 1 day before Election Day and received 5 days after Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 10
More about voting by mail in North Dakota (opens in new tab)

OHIO
Application:
1 day before Election Day (in person), noon 3 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Postmarked 1 day before Election Day and received 10 days after Election Day
Presidential primary date: April 28
More about voting by mail in Ohio (opens in new tab)

OKLAHOMA
Application: 6 days before Election Day (in person, by mail or online)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 3
More about voting by mail in Oklahoma (opens in new tab)

OREGON
Application: 5 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: May 19
More about voting by mail in Oregon (opens in new tab)

PENNSYLVANIA
Application: 7 days before Election Day (in person, by mail and online)
Ballot due: Received by 8pm on Election Day
Presidential primary date: June 2
More about voting by mail in Pennsylvania (opens in new tab)

RHODE ISLAND
Application: 21 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: June 2
More about voting by mail in Rhode Island (opens in new tab)

SOUTH CAROLINA
Application: 1 day before Election Day (in person), 4 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: Feb. 28 (Democratic only)
More about voting by mail in South Carolina (opens in new tab)

SOUTH DAKOTA
Application: 1 day, but recommended at least 7 days before Election Day (in person or by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: June 2
More about voting by mail in South Dakota (opens in new tab)

TENNESSEE
Application: 7 days before Election Day (in person or by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 3
More about voting by mail in Tennessee (opens in new tab)

TEXAS
Application: 11 days before Election Day (in person or by mail)
Ballot due: Postmarked by Election Day and received by the day after Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 3
More about voting by mail in Texas (opens in new tab)

UTAH
Application: 7 days before Election Day (in person, by mail or online)
Ballot due: Postmarked 1 day before Election Day and received 6 days after Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 3
More about voting by mail in Utah (opens in new tab)

VERMONT
Application: 1 day before Election Day (in person or online), 1 day but recommended 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 3
More about voting by mail in Vermont (opens in new tab)

VIRGINIA
Application: 3 days before Election Day (in person or online), 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 3 (Democratic only)
More about voting by mail in Virginia (opens in new tab)

WASHINGTON
Application: No specific deadline. Recommended at least 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Postmarked by Election Day and received 5 days after Election Day
Presidential primary date: March 10
More about voting by mail in Washington (opens in new tab)

WEST VIRGINIA
Application: 6 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Postmarked by Election Day and received by 6 days after Election Day. (Ballots with no postmark will be counted if received by 1 day after Election Day.)
Presidential primary date: June 9
More about voting by mail in West Virginia (opens in new tab)

WISCONSIN
Application: 5 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: April 7
More about voting by mail in Wisconsin (opens in new tab)

WYOMING
Application: 1 day, but recommended at least 7 days before Election Day (by mail)
Ballot due: Election Day
Presidential primary date: April 17 (caucus, Democratic)
More about voting by mail in Wyoming (opens in new tab)

Kelly Woo
Senior Writer

Kelly is a senior writer covering streaming media for Tom’s Guide, so basically, she watches TV for a living. Previously, she was a freelance entertainment writer for Yahoo, Vulture, TV Guide and other outlets. When she’s not watching TV and movies for work, she’s watching them for fun, seeing live music, writing songs, knitting and gardening.