How to vote by mail in 2020

Man surfing on ballot after learning how to vote by mail Image: Man surfing on ballot after learning how to vote by mail

In a Nutshell

If you’re wondering how to vote by mail with an absentee ballot for Election 2020, we’ve got tips to navigate the process.

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Safety concerns may have you wondering if you can vote by mail in the November 2020 general election. The answer is mostly “yes” — depending on what state you live in.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, across the U.S. This year you can cast your vote for president as well as other federal, state and local offices.

It’s important to note that if you want to vote by mail in this year’s general election rather than in person on or before Election Day, you’ll need to follow your state and local guidelines for requesting an absentee ballot — including requesting it by the deadline and returning it on time. To help ensure your vote gets counted, it’s a good idea to return your absentee ballot well before the actual deadline.



What is vote by mail?

You’ve probably seen a fair number of articles about vote by mail or mail-in voting ahead of the 2020 election. This is often referred to as absentee voting.

To vote by absentee (or mail-in) ballot, you typically must apply to do so by a certain date (but not all states require this). The state then mails you a ballot and you return the completed ballot by mail (or in person) before Election Day.

Voting by mail in the U.S. originated during the Civil War, when both Confederate and Union soldiers were allowed to fill out ballots while deployed and have them counted in their home jurisdictions. Today, some states still limit the use of absentee ballots to active-duty military (and their families) living overseas and to other voters who meet a handful of specific criteria such as illness. But many states no longer require an excuse to vote by mail. And some have moved to an all-mail voting system.

If you’re currently living outside the U.S. or are an active-duty member of the military, you can register to vote and request your absentee ballot at the same time with the Federal Post Card Application. Check out VoteAmerica for more information on voting as an overseas voter or voting as a member or spouse of the active-duty military.

Can I vote by mail?

Although you can’t vote online in any federal election, each state does allow absentee voting. But some states still have restrictions in place that specify who can request and receive an absentee ballot and what circumstances are considered valid reasons for voting by mail.

The 2020 election may be different because of COVID-19, so your state election officials may automatically send an absentee ballot to your home address on file with a return envelope if you’re a registered voter, or they may accept the pandemic as a reason to request an absentee ballot. It’s important to check your state’s requirements for voting by mail.

How do I vote by mail?

Step-by-step, here’s how to vote by mail if you’re eligible to do so in your state.

1. Make sure you’re registered to vote in your state. Whether you plan to vote by mail-in ballot or in person, you need to be registered to vote. You can visit the Credit Karma app, VoteAmerica or vote.gov to check your registration status and register online if necessary. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia allow you to register to vote online. Or, you can download the National Mail Voter Registration Form and mail it in to register to vote.

2. Apply for/request an absentee (or vote-by-mail) ballot. Unless you live in a state that’s automatically mailing ballots to registered voters this year, you’ll need to request an absentee ballot before Election Day. Follow your state’s guidelines for submitting an absentee ballot application, which may mean filling out a form or sending a written request by a certain date.

3. Complete and return your ballot on time. Every state has a deadline for returning an absentee ballot. Be sure to get yours in by that date so that your vote can be counted. The Postal Service’s general counsel recently warned all states and the District of Columbia that ballots mailed close to Election Day might not arrive in time to be counted in the election. So, it may be a good idea to request and return your mail-in ballot as early as possible. Check the Credit Karma app to learn more about how to return your ballot.

You may be able to drop your ballot at a ballot drop point depending on where you live. The National Conference of State Legislators has compiled a chart of some states that will allow voters to return mail-in ballots in drop boxes.

New Hampshire and Vermont voters can drop off their ballots at their assigned precinct polling places on Election Day.

What’s the deadline to return an absentee ballot?

Deadlines for requesting and returning a mail-in ballot vary depending on where you live. The map below shows the key deadlines for absentee ballots in your state. For more information, check out the Credit Karma app or visit VoteAmerica’s website or the U.S. Vote Foundation website and check your state or territory’s deadlines.

Remember, postal delays may occur, so if you intend to vote by mail, returning your ballot as soon as possible — and well before Election Day — may be the best way to ensure your vote gets counted.

Can I track my vote by mail ballot?

Some states allow you to track your vote-by-mail ballot. Generally, you’ll want to go to your state election website to track whether your ballot has been processed. You can find your county’s election website through the Credit Karma app or by looking up contact information for your county election office on VoteAmerica’s website.

How has COVID-19 affected mail-in voting in 2020?

Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some states have waived their typical requirements for absentee voting or will accept the pandemic as a reason to request a mail-in ballot rather than voting in person. Currently, 33 states plus the District of Columbia will allow you to vote by mail-in ballot without an excuse, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State. You can find state-specific information on your state’s board of elections website or on the federal U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s website.

If for some reason you don’t receive your absentee ballot in time, or you change your mind and want to vote in person either when early voting begins ahead of Election Day or on Election Day itself, keep in mind that your state or local government may have social distancing measures in place. You should be prepared for the possibility of standing in a longer line or experiencing some delays in voting.


What’s next?

A New York Times analysis recently concluded that more than 75% of American voters are eligible to vote by mail this year.  

With the pandemic likely to affect the 2020 election, the majority of Americans say they’d rather avoid the polling place on Election Day, according to a recent Pew Research survey. Thirty-nine percent said they would rather vote by mail and 18% said they would prefer to vote in person before Election Day.

If you prefer to stay away from the polls, check your state’s vote-by-mail rules to see if you’re eligible. Then request, complete and return you ballot within your state’s guidelines to cast your vote in the 2020 general election. And remember, given the potential for mail delays, returning your ballot as early as possible may help ensure your vote gets counted.


About the author: Paris Ward is a content strategist at Credit Karma, providing readers with the latest news that will aid their financial progress. She has more than a decade of experience as a writer an… Read more.