How to make sure your 2020 mail-in vote is counted

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — A lot of Americans have concerns about mail-in voting in the upcoming presidential election.

Officials say voting by mail is actually very secure. However, millions of Americans are turning to mail-in voting, many for the first time, because of the coronavirus pandemic, which means doubts about the ability of the USPS to deliver mail equal doubts about the election.

Vote early! On Friday, CNN learned the USPS has notified states that some mail-in ballots are at risk of not being counted.

From CNN’s Ellie Kaufman:

Multiple states received communications from the USPS general counsel outlining standard mail delivery times and prices leading up to the November election and warning secretaries of state that election laws established by the states would not necessarily guarantee that mail-in ballots will be received in time to be counted.

CNN obtained letters sent to Washington, Pennsylvania, California and North Carolina. The Utah lieutenant governor’s office also confirmed to CNN that it received a letter at the end of July. The Washington Post reported 46 states and Washington, DC, all received similar warnings.

USPS General Counsel Thomas Marshall wrote to California’s secretary of state that there is “a significant risk that some ballots will not be returned by mail in time to be counted under your laws as we understand them.”

The letters suggest election mail be sent by first class mail, at a higher rate than the nonprofit rate most states use, an obstacle for cash-strapped states dealing with the pandemic.

The slowdown. Meanwhile, in a Pennsylvania court filing, it was alleged that slower USPS delivery times are a likely outcome of recent changes put in place by the post office that have been criticized for putting at risk the ability to conduct vote by mail across the country.

Pennsylvania may extend its deadline to receive ballots to up to three days after the election, provided they are mailed by Election Day.

How to make sure your mail-in vote is counted

What’s clear is that more Americans will be allowed to vote by mail this year — 76% of the country, according to the New York Times.

But, experts say it will take some planning and a little more work from voters. Here’s a guide to making sure your mail-in vote is counted:

Figure out what’s going on in your state

The election is still a while off, but it’s not too early to see what’s going on in your state in terms of mail-in voting.

The first mail-in ballots to be sent this year will be in North Carolina, on September 4. But voters there can request a mail-in absentee ballot until October 27. (Election Day is November 3.)

You have to go check your local secretary of state or board of elections website. There are also a number of organizations that have lists of every single Secretary of State website.

Here’s one run by the US government at

Here’s one from the group representUS, which advocates for mail-in voting, and is a little more user friendly. I took some specifics about deadlines listed below from their spreadsheet.

Every state handles mail-in voting a little bit differently.

Get a mail-in ballot

A number of states — the entire West Coast, DC and a few others — send mail-in ballots to every voter.

Most other states require a voter to apply for a mail-in ballot. Some of them require an excuse, like a medical condition, jury duty, temporarily residing outside the district for military duty or school, etc.

Many states that require an application to get an absentee ballot make it a pretty easy online process, although those websites are not all yet online. Some of them require you to download the application and email it, mail it in, or drop it off at a government office.

Mark your calendar

Most states, according to the database at representUS, require an absentee ballot to be requested by mid-to-late October. Some of them allow a request to be filed up until the day before Election Day.

If you wait until the last minute, you may be better off voting in person, if that option is available to you, especially if you don’t leave enough time for the mail-in ballot to get to you and then back to your local officials.

Track your ballot

Most states, with help from USPS, give your ballot a code. After you’ve requested it, you can go to the Secretary of State’s website and see where you are in the process.

If your doesn’t arrive, you might want to head to your polling place and explore your options, which are probably filling out a provisional ballot.

Don’t wait

The underlying warning of the USPS letters to states is that ballots mailed late may not be delivered in time to be counted under state law.

Some states count ballots received on Election Day.

Some states count ballots received at a certain time on Election Day:

  • 6 p.m. in Kentucky
  • 7 p.m in Colorado
  • 8 p.m. in Delaware

Some states count ballots postmarked on Election Day, but received within a certain number of days:

  • 2 days in Connecticut
  • 10 days in Maryland
  • 14 days in Illinois

It’s up to you

While states are making provisions to help people vote by mail and absentee, that’s clearly a process that’s more complicated than just showing up at the polls on Election Day. And, it’s going to be a little bit different for everyone, depending on where you live.

But whatever you do, if you plan on voting any way other than at a polling place, experts advise you start figuring out the process now.


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