A Step-by-Step Guide to Using an Absentee Ballot to Cast Your Vote

Don't forget to sign the ballot envelope!

Absentee ballots are a great way to stand up and be counted in state, local, and federal elections, even if you can’t get to your designated polling station on Election Day. This year, due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, absentee ballots are more important than ever. Plus, many states have made exceptions to their normal conditions or requirements to allow more voters to mail in their votes.

Luckily, the process of obtaining and filling out an absentee ballot is simple. And given that Election Day 2020 is fast approaching, it’s time to learn how to mail one in. So if you’re curious about what an absentee ballot is or how the process works, we’re here to break it down.

What is absentee voting?

Absentee voting is also known as “mail-in voting” or “by-mail voting,” and, basically, it allows you to cast your vote for elected officials by filling out a paper ballot and mailing it to your election office. In some states, you can also return it in-person to your county Board of Elections.

Different states have different rules for who qualifies for absentee voting, but make sure to check in with your state or local election office website for COVID-19 info as many of these conditions have been lifted or changed due to the pandemic. Typically, these conditions allow people like college students, military personnel, and those with physical disabilities to vote via absentee ballot because of their inability to get to the polls in person the day of the election. This year, however, several states are allowing voters to select the “temporary or permanent illness” excuse when requesting an absentee ballot, stating that temporary illness includes being unable to appear due to the risk of contracting or spreading a communicable disease like COVID-19). Additionally, if you’re not in your home state, it may be necessary to request an absentee ballot.

According to Vote.org:

  • Seventeen states require voters to provide an excuse for voting by absentee ballot.
  • Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia offer no-excuse absentee voting.
  • Five states have elections that are held by mail-in ballot.

How to complete an absentee ballot:


First things first: Are you registered to vote?

Not sure if you’re registered to vote? Sites like Rockthevote.org have easy-to-use forms that help you see if and where you are registered. Simply type in your name, address, and date of birth and the site will scan voter databases to let you know the status of your registration. If you are not registered, the site will direct you to sign up.

Additionally, you can register to vote via your state’s election site or go to usa.gov to start your voter registration. Just be sure to check the U.S. Vote Foundation to find your state’s deadline for registering—some will even allow you to register and vote on the same day.

Request or apply for an absentee ballot.

Once you’re registered to vote, it’s easy to apply for an absentee ballot. Check out Vote.org to see your state’s application deadline. This can range from one to 10 days before Election Day, so you want to give yourself plenty of time to get the application, get approved, and receive your mail-in ballot.

Start by visiting your state or territorial election office website and looking for “Absentee Voting” or “Voting By Mail.” Many states have helpful icons that make these options readily available, but if it’s not obvious on the site, try using the site’s search tool.

As mentioned, some states require you to have a valid excuse to vote absentee, but many have loosened these restrictions to account for the effects of COVID-19. This table shows which states require an excuse and the excuses each state will accept.

Fill out the ballot, sign the ballot envelope, and send it back.

Once you receive your ballot in the mail (it will often come in an envelope with the words “Absentee Ballot Enclosed” or “Official Election Mail” on the front), you’ll need to fill it out and return it by Election Day in order to have it counted.

The envelope typically includes instructions, a ballot, a ballot envelope, and a return envelope, though this varies from state to state.

Cast your vote by filling out the paper form as instructed, then signing, dating, and addressing the voter envelope or form. A few states may require both a voter signature and a witness signature, and only Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Missouri typically require a notary signature. Here’s where the process gets very important.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “It is not uncommon for an absentee/mailed ballot to be returned in an envelope that has a problem, such as a missing signature or a signature that doesn’t match records.” Because of this: make sure the signature on your ballot envelope matches the signature on your license. If there is a ballot discrepancy, only 18 states will notify the voter and give them an opportunity to correct it. In the other 32 states, if your ballot envelope is not signed, or the signature does not appear to match the ones they have on file, your vote will not be counted. Once you have signed and dated the ballot envelope and placed your completed ballot inside, you may place it in the return envelope.

According to Vote.org, in most cases, it is up to the voter to pay for postage to return a mail ballot envelope to the election official, so whatever you do, don’t forget to place a stamp on the return envelope.

After that, place the envelope in the mailbox and have your vote counted. Remember: Every vote counts.

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