How to Vote by Mail or with an Absentee Ballot

Here’s everything you need to know to securely vote from home, from registering to tracking your ballot’s delivery status.
A worker wearing a protective mask places ballots into mail bins at the Runbeck Election Services facility in Phoenix, June 23, 2020.

Caitlin O'Hara/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In recent decades, more and more voters have cast their ballots securely by mail—a trend that ramped up during the pandemic. But the rules for voting by mail differ, depending on where you live. And the process can feel complex, especially when it’s your first time.

Here’s everything you need to know to successfully vote by mail or absentee ballot, for both the general and midterm elections.

Your vote-by-mail checklist

  1. Register to vote (or confirm your registration).
  2. Check your state’s voter rules and deadlines.
  3. Request an absentee ballot.
  4. Fill out your ballot (and don’t forget to sign the envelope).
  5. Mail in your ballot.
  6. Track your vote-by-mail ballot.
  7. Changed your mind? Vote in person instead.

1. Register to vote or confirm your registration.

Visit vote.gov to register to vote or to confirm your voter registration. This is particularly important if you have moved or changed your name. Depending on your state, the registration deadline could be as much as 30 days before the election. Many states don’t require you to be registered first to apply for an absentee ballot, but it makes the process easier.

2. Check your state’s voter rules and deadlines.

It’s easier than ever for voters to cast their ballot by mail, but you must check your state’s guidelines, as rules vary and may have changed since the last election. To review them, visit either USA.gov or check your state’s election office website. It’s also worth knowing that most mail-in voting happens using one of these two systems:

  • Universal vote-by-mail ballots
    Some states (currently, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington) automatically mail every registered voter a ballot before an election. In most cases, voters in these states can still choose to cast a ballot in person during the early voting period or on Election Day, if they prefer not to participate by mail.
  • Absentee voting
    All other states offer mail-in absentee voting, which requires voters to request an absentee ballot. Sixteen states require an approved excuse for why you can’t show up in person to vote, while 26 states and Washington, D.C., do not. Some states have now included COVID-19 precautions as an approved excuse to vote by mail or don’t currently require an excuse, but those amendments are subject to change. Some states also have a permanent absentee ballot list—voters need only ask once to be added to the list for all elections going forward.

3. Request an absentee ballot as soon as possible.

If your state doesn’t automatically mail you a ballot, you’ll need to visit your state election website or vote.org to request one. Some states allow voters to request their absentee ballot online, some offer downloadable PDF forms, and others link to a third-party site that provides the service.

It’s particularly crucial to check the deadline for your absentee ballot application and meet it; late applications—even if postmarked by the deadline—won’t be honored. Some states also require you to request a ballot weeks in advance of the election. So visit your state’s election website to know for sure.

4. Fill out your ballot (and don’t forget to sign the envelope).

From this point, the voting process is the same, whether you requested an absentee ballot or it was automatically mailed to you. Once you have your ballot in hand, you will notice your information is already preprinted. This is standard, but check that it’s correct. If there are issues with your ballot or if it is damaged, contact your state’s election office to request a replacement. Some states may request you return the original absentee ballot first.

If your ballot is fine, then read the instructions, mark your ballot with a blue- or black-ink pen, refold it, place it into the return envelope, sign the declaration or oath on the envelope carefully and legibly, and seal it.

And FYI, some states, like Wisconsin, require a witness signature or notary for absentee ballots, though certain notary requirements have been suspended during the pandemic. Your state’s election or secretary of state’s website can help you find out about special options for virtual witness or notary services and for any other updated requirements.

5. Mail in your ballot carefully and on time.

In some states, postage is covered to make mailing back your completed ballot easy. Most also require that your ballot be postmarked on or before Election Day. You can return your ballot at a mailbox or an official drop box, which are often located at libraries, schools, or voting centers.

6. Track your vote-by-mail ballot.

Not every state offers the same tracking for mailed-in ballots. California, for example, offers Where’s My Ballot?, which allows voters to track their ballot online and receive status notifications, including when it is mailed, received, and counted. You can check what your state offers in this vote-by-mail status tracker tool.

7. Changed your mind? Yes, you can vote in person instead.

If you haven’t returned your absentee or mail-in ballot, you can still vote in person. Just make sure you know the location of your polling station. Bring a photo ID (if your state requires it) and the absentee ballot with you, as it may help streamline the process for election administrators.

Make sure to take advantage of early voting, if you can. This voting chart lists time frames for states that offer this option. And remember, the earlier you vote, the more likely you are to avoid crowds—and the sooner you’ll have the peace of mind that your vote was counted successfully.


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Philadelphia City Hall early voting, October 2020
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