Election Mail

Absentee Ballots

Not all voters can get to the polling place on Election Day. An absentee ballot is the printed ballot marked by an absent voter, sealed in a special envelope, and given or mailed to the municipal clerk.

Each election cycle presents a different set of parameters for ballot creation and for the size and weight of the return mailpiece. As a result, many voters do not know the correct amount of postage required to return their ballots by mail. Election officials must consult with Postal Service officials to determine the proper postage required for mailing ballots to voters and for voters mailing ballots to election officials.

Absentee and Early Voting

Most states have a method for eligible voters to cast ballots before Election Day, either during the early voting period or by requesting an absentee ballot. In 13 states, early voting is not available, and in 20 states, a reason is required to request an absentee ballot. States typically offer three ways for voters to cast a ballot before Election Day:

1. Early Voting. In 37 states (including three that mail ballots to all voters for every election) and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period before Election Day. No excuse or justification is required.

2. Absentee Voting. All states will mail an absentee ballot to qualified voters who request one. The voter may return the ballot by mail or in person. In 20 states, a reason is required, while 27 states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to vote absentee without offering a justification. Some states offer a permanent absentee ballot list. Once a voter asks to be added to the list, he or she will automatically receive an absentee ballot for all future elections.

3. Mail Voting. A ballot is automatically mailed to every eligible voter (no request or application is necessary). In-person voting sites may also be available. Three states mail ballots to all eligible voters for every election. Other states may provide this option for some types of elections.

For more information, visit ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/absentee-and-early-voting.aspx.


According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 22 states have provisions allowing certain elections to be conducted entirely by mail. For these elections, all registered voters receive a ballot in the mail. Typically, the voter marks the ballot, puts it in a secrecy envelope or sleeve, places it into a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior of the mailing envelope, and returns the package via mail or by dropping it off.

Ballots are mailed in advance of Election Day so voters have an “election period” instead of a single day to vote. All-mail elections, known as “Vote-By-Mail” can be seen as absentee voting for everyone.

As of January 2017, three of the 22 states — Oregon (2000), Washington (2011), and Colorado (2013) — hold all elections entirely by mail. California (2016) will begin holding all-mail elections in 2018. Traditional in-person voting precincts are not available in these three states. Instead, voters return ballots by mail, in a drop-off location, and in some cases vote in-person at voter centers. Other states permit all-mail elections in certain circumstances, such as for special districts, municipal elections, when candidates run unopposed, or at the discretion of the county clerk.

Generally, states begin providing all-mail elections only in certain circumstances, and then add additional opportunities as citizens become familiar with procedures. For more information, visit ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/all-mail-elections.aspx.

The National Conference of State Legislatures also reports that at least 17 states and the District of Columbia allow some form of permanent absentee voting. In some states, this system is called “permanent mail-in voting.” Permanent absentee voting operates in a similar manner to all-mail elections. Voters in these states can sign up to have a ballot automatically mailed for every election where the voter is eligible.

Military — APO/FPO/DPO

Key Messages

n Even in times of war, the Postal Service has delivered the most fundamental symbol of democracy — a ballot. The Postal Service is honored to provide the brave men and woman serving abroad in the military with the opportunity to vote.

n Any American voter living overseas can mail his or her completed ballot back to the United States free of charge at the nearest American embassy, consulate, or Diplomatic Post Office (DPO). If the voter has authorized access to a military base, he or she can mail a ballot free of charge at the nearest Army Post Office (APO) or Foreign Post Office (FPO).

n For the 2018 midterm election, special procedures for APO/FPO/DPO absentee ballots are in effect between September 1 and November 6. During this time, the Postal Service will provide special handling for dispatch via the International Service Centers (ISCs).

n The Postal Service recommends that voters return ballots by these mailing dates (see usps.com/electionmail).

Military — APO/FPO/DPO Absentee Ballots

The Postal Service and the Military Postal Service have joined forces to provide special handling of absentee ballots to overseas military personnel. The Postal Service is committed to ensuring that everyone who votes by mail experiences an efficient process.

Here is a summary of special procedures for APO/FPO/DPO absentee ballots:

n Election officials must mail absentee ballots at least 45 days before the November 6 election.

n All military absentee ballots mailed by election officials from September 1 through November 6 will be subject to special handling procedures.

n Local election offices must segregate military absentee ballots to the Chicago ISC and the Miami ISC gateways. At ISCs, absentee ballots receive special handling including accelerated sortation, special tray identification, and priority transportation.


n APO/FPO absentee ballots will be sent from local Post Office™ locations to the nearest Processing and Distribution Center for further handling. Postal service employees may identify trays or containers of absentee ballot mail using Tag 191, Domestic and International Mail-in Ballots, and present them to the Post Office facility.

Military — APO/FPO/DPO Returning Absentee Ballots

Military personnel with APO/FPO/DPO addresses can return absentee ballots via Priority Mail Express® using Label 11-DOD, DOD Express Mail Label Absentee Ballot. The label includes “Waiver of Signature” and “Guaranteed by End of Day” endorsements, so ballots can be delivered the day they arrive at the destination Post Office.

Label 11-DOD

Label 11 DOD graphic

n The Military Postal Service distributes Label 11-DOD overseas and pays for the postage.

n The Priority Mail Express ballot label is only for absentee ballots mailed from Military Post Office facilities overseas.

n Voters may use the label on any size ballot envelope and must always affix it in the upper right corner.

n Voters keep part of the label to use the tracking number to track their ballots.

n At ISCs, absentee ballots receive special handling including accelerated sortation, special tray identification, and priority transportation.

n Overseas U.S. military and civilian citizens must return their absentee ballots via APO/FPO/DPO locations.

n The ballots arrive by international transportation at one of the Postal Service gateway offices for Customs clearance and initial processing at select designated offices.

n At these facilities, the mail is processed by postal automation equipment in an initial domestic primary sort for distribution throughout the United States.

Tag 191

Tag 191, Domestic and International Mail-In Ballots, is a green container tag used by election officials to identify trays and sacks of ballot mail destined for either domestic or international addresses. The tag (shown right) provides greater visibility to ballot mail during Postal Service handling.

Tag 191

United States Postal Service Ballot graphic.