It’s no longer safe to assume your ballot will arrive on time if mailed. You can, however, vote in person, but there are some things to be aware of
So you requested an absentee ballot, but haven’t yet mailed it off. Maybe you procrastinated, guiltily avoiding looking its way as it gathered dust on your dresser, or got legitimately busy and didn’t get to the post office in time. For whatever reason, if you requested a ballot but have changed your mind and want to vote in person—you can! There are just a few rules to be aware of.
Don’t Mail Your Ballot—And Don’t Throw It Out
Requesting a ballot does not record you in the system as having voted, or preclude you from voting in person, so long as you do not mail the ballot. If you fill it out and mail it, that both removes your right to vote in person and, at this juncture in time, puts it at risk of not arriving on time to be counted.
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The United States Postal Service (USPS) recommends mail-in ballots be posted at least a week before Election Day, so it’s no longer safe to assume your ballot will arrive on time, especially with this year’s much-higher volume of ballots being mailed. As of Tuesday, USPS had processed 523 million pieces of election mail—that’s 62% more than the 323 million pieces moved during the 2016 election cycle, according to the agency. As the Washington Post reports, processing facilities are required to conduct daily “all clear” sweeps of sorting plants to ensure no election mail has been misplaced, but that doesn’t always happen. Data shows that the agency found unprocessed ballots, did not complete the check, or failed to report the results in 10% of its reports.
“What it suggests to me is that when they can identify ballots, they’re doing a good job, but when they’re not catching ballots, there are ballots sitting in the slowest part of the system, and that remains troubling,” J. Remy Green, a New York attorney representing a group of voters in a federal lawsuit against the Postal Service, told the Post.
Also, with the seating of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the US Supreme Court has a solidified conservative majority, and just this week ruled against Wisconsin counting mailed-in ballots that arrive after Election Day. There’s no reason to believe this move toward contracting, instead of expanding, voter rights will not continue.
It’s a better bet to go vote in person during the early voting period—which ends on Saturday for many states—or if that’s not possible, vote on Election Day. Some polling stations are equipped with technology to look up whether or not you returned a mail ballot, but this database is not available across the board. Be prepared to explain, and if at all possible, bring your mail ballot with you just in case.
Two Ways to Vote Early
The details for early voting differ from state to state if you’ve requested an absentee ballot but want to vote in person. At the early polling station, you may either vote using your absentee ballot or trade it in for a regular ballot.
If you choose the former, mark your ballot and seal it inside the mailing envelope that it arrived with. It is vital you sign and date the outside, or the ballot may be rejected. Then turn it in to one of the volunteers at the early polling site. Be aware, you will still have to wait in line and have your registration confirmed first. Absentee ballots may not be dropped off at polling places beyond the early voting period, so this is not an option on Election Day.
The other option is to hand your unused absentee ballot to a poll worker to exchange it for a polling place ballot. Some states will allow you to cast a regular ballot, but others may require you to fill out a provisional ballot, which will be counted once election officials determine you haven’t already voted. You can look up each state’s regulation around that here.
Most states’ early voting period closes at or around Oct. 31, but check this early voting chart for time frames per state. Your local election office can provide information regarding polling locations, in-person registration, and voting site hours and more.
Casting Votes on Election Day
Election Day is Nov. 3, the end of the voting cycle, and if you wait until then, you will be provided either a regular ballot or, if there are questions about your eligibility to vote, a provisional one. Provisional ballots ensure that voters are not excluded from the voting process due to an administrative error, and are kept separate from other ballots until after Election Day. It can take days for elections officials to confirm that the voter was registered in the proper county and had not already voted in the election, and it is possible that they can be rejected.