Election Mail

Absentee Ballots

An absentee ballot is the printed ballot marked by an absent voter, sealed in a special envelope, and returned to election officials, usually in person or through the mail.

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 a Postal Service Business Mail Entry manager, mailpiece design analyst, or election/political mail coordinator to determine the proper postage required for mailing ballots to voters and for voters mailing ballots back to election officials.

Election officials are required to indicate in a prominent location the proper amount of First-Class Mail postage that must be applied to balloting materials for any election, whether sent in hard copy or electronic formats. An exception may apply in certain circumstances for balloting materials for military and overseas voters or where postage is prepaid. See Publication 631, Official Election Mail — Graphic Guidelines and Logos to learn more about the postage marking requirements.

Absentee and Early Voting

As reported by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 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 11 states, early voting is not available, and in 17 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 39 states 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 17 states, a reason is required, while 33 states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to vote absentee without offering a justification.

3. Mail Voting. In all-mail election states, a ballot is automatically mailed to every eligible voter (no request or application is necessary). In-person voting sites may also be available. Five 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 NCSL, at least 21 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 elections can be seen as absentee voting for everyone.

Four of the 22 states — Oregon (2000), Washington (2011), Colorado (2013), and Hawaii (2019) — hold Vote-By-Mail elections. Voters return marked ballots by mail, at a drop-off location, and in some cases vote in person at voter centers.

Utah permits individual counties to determine if they would like to conduct all-mail elections or not, and all counties are expected to do so in 2020. In California, some counties are currently permitted to conduct all-mail elections. After 2020, the option will be available to all counties in the state. 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 Vote-By-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.

Military — APO/FPO/DPO

Key Messages

Even in times of war, the Postal Service has delivered the most fundamental symbol of democracy — a ballot. As the election season progresses, emphasize the following key messages:

n The Postal Service is honored to provide the brave men and women 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 Fleet Post Office (FPO).

n For the 2020 general election, special procedures for APO/FPO/DPO absentee ballots are in effect between September 1 and November 30. 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 fvap.gov/eo/overview).

Military — APO/FPO/DPO Absentee Ballots

The Postal Service and the Military Postal Service collaborate 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 3 election.

n All military absentee ballots mailed by election officials from September 1 through November 30 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 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

Familiarize yourself with the following operational guidelines for Label 11-DOD:

n The Military Postal Service distributes Label 11-DOD overseas.

n The Priority Mail Express ballot label is only for absentee ballots mailed from Military Post Office (MPO) 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.

Service Type Identifiers and How They Improve Mailpiece Visibility

The Postal Service provides customized Service Type Identifiers (STIDs) specifically for ballots to improve ballot mail visibility. These STIDs have proven instrumental in identifying and tracking ballots on hand and in the mailstream. In addition, STIDs have increased the visibility of outbound/returning ballot mail within the automation environment as well as passive identification and tracking of ballot mail.

STID processing leverages Intelligent Mail® barcode (IMb®) scan data that is available via Informed Visibility® (IV®) reports. To learn more about ballot STIDs, see postalpro.usps.com/mailing/service-type-identifiers.

Election and Political Mail Map

The interactive Election and Political Mail map provides election officials with contact information for election and political mail coordinators. The interactive map includes Business Mail Entry Unit addresses and phone numbers, and a ZIP Code™ lookup feature to streamline the resource identification process. To view the Election and Political Mail map, see about.usps.com/gov-services/election-mail.

Tag 191

United States Postal Service Ballot graphic.

Tag 191

Tag 191, Domestic and International 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 left) provides greater visibility to ballot mail during Postal Service handling. Election officials can order Tag 191 online at usps.com/electionmail and have it mailed directly to local election officials.

Business Reply Mail and Qualified Business Reply Mail

Business Reply Mail® (BRM) and Qualified Business Reply Mail™ (QBRM™) are First-Class Mail services that enable election officials to pay the return postage (including a per-piece fee) for the ballots returned to election offices. BRM or QBRM Election Mail can be distributed and returned to election officials in any ZIP Code.

The mailpieces election mail officials distribute must conform to a specific format, including use of a unique ZIP+4® code assigned by the Postal Service. Proofs for QBRM must be approved by the Postal Service and bear an IMb. QBRM applies only to automation-compatible cards and letter-size mail weighing up to and including 2 ounces. For more information on BRM and QBRM, see Mailing Standards of the United States Postal Service, Domestic Mail Manual (DMM®) 505.1.1 and 1.6 as well as Quick Service Guide 505 at pe.usps.com/cpim/ftp/manuals/dmm300/dmmtoc.pdf.

Informed Delivery

Informed Delivery is a secure, free feature that provides eligible residential consumers with a digital preview of their incoming mail and packages. Users can view grayscale images of the exterior address side of automation-processed, letter-sized mailpieces via email, smartphone app, or an online dashboard. The Postal Service does not open mail or packages to scan the enclosed content as part of Informed Delivery service.

A digital preview of the exterior of Election Mail offers benefits to both election officials and voters. Election officials are able to increase voter interaction with their mail and generate faster response rates. On the other hand, voters have a more convenient and secure “vote at home” experience because they can see when their Election Mail will arrive. Learn more about Informed Delivery at usps.com/business/informed-delivery.htm.