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If You Wait Until Your State’s Deadline To Mail Your Ballot, You May Be Too Late

All eyes are on the post office lately. (Yet another sentence we never thought we’d write in 2020.) In the past few weeks, Democrats have alleged that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a major donor to the GOP and President Trump, is trying to slow down mail delivery and thus disrupt the election. And the U.S. Postal Service itself sent a letter (naturally) to 46 states and Washington, D.C., warning them that there could be delays in ballot deliveries.

Depending on your political worldview, one event seemed to be evidence of the other. But the letter isn’t part of a master plan to forestall democracy. It was instead about states assuming mail works differently than it does — regardless of who the postmaster is. And that could have a major effect on whether your mail-in vote is counted.

The post office has long-standing guidelines (which predate DeJoy) that recommend how much time voters and election officials should allow to apply for, send and receive mail-in ballots.

“We’ve been working on this for a while across the country to encourage states to update their laws to reflect the realities of how the post office actually works,” said Amber McReynolds, CEO for the National Vote At Home Institute, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for policies that make it easier for voters to cast absentee ballots.

In almost all states, even people who meet the deadline to request or mail back their ballot run the risk of their ballot not arriving on time simply because of how long the mail takes.

The USPS recommends voters allow one week between when they request their ballot and when they would like to receive it, and another week between when they put their completed ballot in the mail and the state’s deadline for receiving it. But many states allow mail ballots to be requested up until a few days before Election Day, which this year falls on Nov. 3, even if the deadline for returning the ballot is the day of the election. “The reality is that voters are going to fail if election officials are being asked to mail ballots out that late,” said McReynolds.

So if you’re among the 64 percent of voters who say they’re likely to cast a mail-in ballot this year, don’t wait until the last minute to request or return your ballot. When should you request or send it, then? We have a table for that:

Over 30 states have risky mail-in ballot deadlines

When voters should request and send back their mail ballots, according to USPS guidelines, and how different that is from each jurisdiction’s deadline

Mississippi and North Dakota have no statutory ballot-request deadline. California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Washington, D.C., are currently planning to automatically mail ballots to every voter, so they also do not have ballot-request deadlines.

Sources: State Election Officials, U.S. Postal Service

We calculated these dates by applying the USPS guidelines to each state’s deadline for receiving ballots.1 As you can see, 33 out of the 39 states that require would-be mail voters to request a ballot by a certain date2 have statutory deadlines later than the USPS recommends. Alaska, Iowa, Maryland, New Mexico, New York and Virginia are the only states whose deadlines comply with USPS guidelines. Similarly, in eight states3 that theoretically allow you to postmark your ballot by Nov. 2 or 3, you’ll want to put your ballot in the mail before that deadline to ensure it arrives in time to count.

But don’t worry if you don’t get your act together in time, or simply want to take more time to decide who to vote for. In most states, you can both request a “mail” ballot in person and drop off a completed ballot at your local election office or an official ballot drop box instead of mailing it. If you’re willing to do that, it’s fine to wait until the statutory deadlines to request and submit your ballot. It’s not a perfect solution, but you can also pay extra to send your ballot by priority or overnight mail, which are faster than standard mail service. So while we urge people to meet the recommended deadlines in the chart, it’s important to know you have options if you don’t.


  1. Specifically, the recommended deadline for submitting your ballot by mail is always seven days before the receipt deadline, unless the state has a postmark deadline that falls before that date. And the recommended deadline for requesting a ballot by mail is always seven days before the recommended deadline for submitting your ballot by mail, unless the statutory request deadline falls before that date.

  2. California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Washington, D.C., are currently planning to automatically mail ballots to every voter, so people there don’t need to request ballots. Mississippi and North Dakota, meanwhile, technically have no deadline for requesting a ballot.

  3. Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.