How to vote by mail in 2020

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/Vox

Specifically, 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.

Map: “Strict mail ballot deadlines could be a problem this fall”

Tim Ryan Williams/Vox

If 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. (And in Maryland, at least, you may want to stick to an absentee ballot if you request it.)

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 are subject to change. Check with a local election official if you have any questions about how to vote.

The vote-by-mail states

If 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:

Colorado

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 26 if voting by mail, or day-of at a polling place
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 12
  • Return your ballot by: 7 pm on Nov. 3

Hawaii

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 5
  • Ballots expected to be mailed by: Oct. 16
  • Return your ballot by: 6 pm on Nov. 3

Oregon

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 13
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 14
  • Return your ballot by: 8 pm on Nov. 3

Utah

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 23
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 13
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 2; received by between Nov. 10 and Nov. 17 by canvass date; Nov. 3 in person

Washington

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 26 or by Nov. 3 in person
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 16
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3

The absentee-ballot-for-all states

If you live in California, Nevada, New Jersey, Vermont, or the District of Columbia, voting absentee should be straightforward. On account of the coronavirus pandemic, all four states and DC plan to automatically send absentee ballots to registered voters.

In Nevada and New Jersey, things have been complicated by pending lawsuit 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:

California

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 19
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 3
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by Nov. 20

District of Columbia

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 13, or Oct. 26 if you’re registering in person
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: First week of October
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by Nov. 10

Nevada

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 6, or Oct. 29 if registering online
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Late September or early October
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by Nov. 10

New Jersey

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 13
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 19
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by 8 pm on Nov. 5

Vermont

  • Register to vote by: Day-of registration available
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 18
  • Return your ballot by: Received by 7 pm on Nov. 3 or returned to the town clerk’s office by close of business on Nov. 2

The states with no-excuse absentee ballot applications

If you live in one of these 35 states, you have one more step to deal with before you can vote from home. Though almost every state has expanded absentee ballot access in the face of the coronavirus pandemic (we’ll get to the ones that haven’t — like Texas and Mississippi — in a minute), most still require voters to request an absentee ballot. That means there are at least two dates to know: when you need to submit your request by, and when your ballot needs to be returned by.

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.

Alabama

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 19
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 29
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 19
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 2; received by noon on Nov. 3
  • Ballots must be notarized or signed by two witnesses.

Alaska

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 4
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 24
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 9 (earlier for remote, military, and overseas voters)
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by Nov. 13
  • Ballots must be signed by a witness.

Arizona

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 5
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 23
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 7
  • Return your ballot by: 7 pm on Nov. 3

Arkansas

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 4
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 27 by mail or online; Nov. 2 if submitting application in person
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 18
  • Return your ballot by: 7:30 pm on Nov. 3

Connecticut

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 27 (postmarked-by date if registering by mail)
  • Request your ballot by: Nov. 2
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 3
  • Return your ballot by: 8 pm on Nov. 3

Delaware

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 10
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 30 by mail; Nov. 2 by noon if submitting application in person
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 19
  • Return your ballot by: 8 pm on Nov. 3

Florida

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 5
  • Request your ballot by: 5 pm Oct. 24
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 24 to Oct. 1
  • Return your ballot by: 7 pm on Nov. 3

Georgia

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 5
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 30
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 18
  • Return your ballot by: 7 pm on Nov. 3 (This could be extended — a judge ruled in August that Georgia must accept ballots that are postmarked by Nov. 3 through by Nov. 6, but the state is appealing.)

Idaho

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 9
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 23 by mail; Oct. 30 if submitting application in person
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 18
  • Return your ballot by: 8 pm on Nov. 3

Illinois

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 18
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 29 by mail; Nov. 2 if submitting application in person
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 24
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by Nov. 17

Iowa

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 24
  • Request your ballot by: 5 pm on Oct. 24
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 5
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 2; received by Nov. 9; in person by Nov. 3

Kansas

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 13
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 27
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 14
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by Nov. 6

Kentucky

  • Register to vote by: 4 pm on Oct. 5
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 27
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 14
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by Nov. 6

Maine

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 13 if registering by mail, or day-of if registering in person
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 29
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 4
  • Return your ballot by: 8 pm on Nov. 3

Maryland

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 13
  • Request your ballot by: Request must be received by Oct. 20
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 24
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by 10 am on Nov. 13

Massachusetts

Michigan

  • Register to vote by Oct. 19 online or by mail; in person through Election Day
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 30 by mail; Nov. 3 by 4 pm local time if submitting application in person
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 19
  • Return your ballot by: 8 pm on Nov. 3

Minnesota

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 13, or day-of at a polling place
  • Request your ballot by: Nov. 2
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 18
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by Nov. 10

Missouri

Montana

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 26 (late registration also available)
  • Request your ballot by: noon on Nov. 2 (if needed in your county)
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 9
  • Return your ballot by: Received by 8 pm local time on Nov. 3

Nebraska

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 16
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 23
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 28
  • Return your ballot by: 8 pm on Nov. 3

New Hampshire

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 21 to Oct. 28 (varies by county); or day-of at a polling place; registration for voting absentee requires a witness
  • Request your ballot by: Nov. 2
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 4
  • Return your ballot by: 5 pm on Nov. 3

New Mexico

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 6
  • Request your ballot by: 5 pm on Oct. 20
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 12
  • Return your ballot by: 7 pm on Nov. 3

New York

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 9
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 27 by mail; Nov. 2 if submitting application in person
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 18
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by Nov. 10 or by Nov. 4 without a postmark

North Carolina

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 9
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 27
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 4, the earliest in the country
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by 5 pm on Nov. 6
  • Ballots must be signed by a witness.

North Dakota

Ohio

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 5
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 31 by noon
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 6
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 2; received by Nov. 13

Oklahoma

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 9
  • Request your ballot by: 5 pm on Oct. 27
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 19
  • Return your ballot by: 7 pm on Nov. 3

Pennsylvania

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 19
  • Request your ballot by: 5 pm on Oct. 27
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 14 to Sept. 19
  • Return your ballot by: 8 pm on Nov. 3

Rhode Island

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 4
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 13 by 4 pm
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 19
  • Return your ballot by: 8 pm on Nov. 3

South Dakota

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 19
  • Request your ballot by: 5 pm on Nov. 2
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 18
  • Return your ballot by: 7 pm on Nov. 3

Virginia

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 12
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 23; in person by Oct. 31
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 19
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by noon on Nov. 6

West Virginia

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 13
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 28
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 18
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by Nov. 9 (also accepted if received by Nov. 4 without a postmark); in person by Nov. 2

Wisconsin

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 14 if registering online or by mail, or Oct. 30 in person
  • Request your ballot by: 5 pm on Oct. 29
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 17
  • Return your ballot by: 8 pm on Nov. 3
  • A witness signature is required.

Wyoming

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 19
  • Request your ballot by: Nov. 2
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 18
  • Return your ballot by: 7 pm on Nov. 3

The rest (states with excuse-required absentee ballot applications)

With fewer than 60 days until the general election, there are still a handful of states that have done relatively little to accommodate for the reality of a largely uncontrolled pandemic. In Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, you still need an excuse to request an absentee ballot — and generalized coronavirus concerns don’t count.

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:

Indiana

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 5
  • Eligible excuses to request an absentee ballot can be found here
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 22
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 19
  • Return your ballot by: noon on Nov. 3

Louisiana

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 4 if registering by mail or in person; Oct. 14 if registering online
  • Eligible excuses: Covid-19 specific excuses can be found here; general excuses can be found here
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 30
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 19
  • Return your ballot by: 4:30 pm on Nov. 2
  • Ballots must be signed by a witness.

Mississippi

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 5
  • Eligible excuses to request an absentee ballot can be found here (a judge’s ruling may expand the list)
  • Request your ballot by: No date specified — to be safe, the earlier the better
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 21
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by Nov. 10; in person by Oct. 31
  • Ballots must be notarized.

South Carolina

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 5, or Oct. 4 online
  • Eligible excuses to request an absentee ballot can be found here (pending legislation could expand eligibility to all)
  • Request your ballot by: 5 pm on Oct. 30; apply in person by Nov. 2
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Oct. 4
  • Return your ballot by: 7 pm on Nov. 3
  • A witness signature may be required.

Tennessee

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 5
  • Eligible excuses to request an absentee ballot can be found here
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 27
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 19
  • Return your ballot by: Nov. 3

Texas

  • Register to vote by: Oct. 5
  • Eligible excuses to request an absentee ballot can be found here
  • Request your ballot by: Oct. 23
  • Ballots expected to start to be mailed out: Sept. 19
  • Return your ballot by: Postmarked by Nov. 3; received by 5 pm on Nov. 4

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