Many voters who want to participate in the election by mail are concerned about when they’ll receive their ballot – and whether it will get back in time to be counted.
At the same time, recent changes at the U.S. Postal Service have caused slowdowns in mail delivery. The Postal Service itself has warned states that ballots mailed by election officials close to Election Day may not reach voters in time. A federal court has issued a nationwide order giving election-related mail priority in Postal Service processing.
44 states let all voters track mail-in ballots
The vast majority of states, and the District of Columbia, let all voters track their mail-in ballots – click on each state for a link to its online ballot-tracking system. In the remaining states, some counties and municipalities may have their own systems, which are not included here. Two states only allow statewide online ballot tracking for military service members or overseas voters. Four states do not have statewide online tracking of mailed ballots, though they may have other ways for military and overseas voters to determine whether their ballots have been received, as is required by federal law.
Nevertheless, anecdotal reports abound of voters who applied for absentee ballots and are still waiting for them weeks later.
And on Oct. 19, the U.S. Supreme Court accommodated potential mail delays by ruling that Pennsylvania may count ballots that arrive through the end of Friday, Nov. 6 – three days after Election Day.
Different states have different rules about who can cast their ballots by mail; I was involved in a nonpartisan lawsuit that expanded access to voting by mail in Tennessee.
Fortunately, almost everyone who is allowed to vote by mail can stay on top of where those ballots are. In 44 states and the District of Columbia, a unified system allows all voters to see when their request for a ballot by mail was received, when the ballot was mailed to them and when the completed ballot was received back at the local election office.
Many Americans can already vote by mail – but many can't
Five states conduct all elections by mail. Twenty-nine others, and the District of Columbia, allow any voter to request an absentee ballot. Four states require people to provide specific reasons to get an absentee ballot. Twelve states had similarly strict rules but have lifted their restrictions in light of the coronavirus outbreak – either for the November general election, or just through the summer primaries. This map is current as of Oct. 15, 2020.
Two other states provide online tracking for members of the military and civilian citizens who live overseas – groups that have special mail ballot protections under federal law. In the remaining four states without a statewide ballot-tracking system, some counties and municipalities may have their own online versions – or may be able to update voters who contact the office by phone or in person.
The Postal Service, election officials and other experts recommend that people conservatively allow a week for the ballot to arrive at their home from the election office, and a week for it to get back so it can be counted. It may take less time, and in some places you can speed things up by using an official drop box to return your ballot without relying on the mail.
In either case, you can keep an eye on your ballot to make sure it has arrived and been accepted for counting. And if it hasn’t arrived yet, or has been rejected for some reason, you’ll know to contact local election officials to see what to do so your vote can count.
Steven Mulroy, Law Professor in Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Election Law, University of Memphis
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