Election Mail

Absentee Ballots

An absentee ballot, in most cases, is the printed ballot marked by an absent voter, sealed in a special envelope, and returned to election officials 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 Mailing Standards of the United States Postal Service, Domestic Mail Manual (DMM®), section 703.8.1, 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. However, several states require a reason to request an absentee ballot.

Some states provide early in-person voting. The other two methods are:

1. Absentee Voting. All states will mail an absentee ballot to qualified voters who request one. It is up to the individual state if a reason is required to vote absentee.

2. Mail Voting. In a handful of states, a ballot is automatically mailed to every eligible voter (no request or application is necessary). In-person voting sites may also be available. Other states may permit the all-mail option for specific types of elections.

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


According to the NCSL, several 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 envelope via mail or by dropping it off at a designated site.

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.

Five states, including Oregon (2000), Washington (2011), Colorado (2013), Hawaii (2019), and Utah (2020), hold Vote-By-Mail elections. Voters return marked ballots by mail or at a drop-off location, and in some cases, vote in person at voter centers.

Some states have opted to conduct Vote-By-Mail elections for an increasing number of contests in 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Generally, states begin providing Vote-By-Mail elections only in certain circumstances, and then add opportunities for voting by mail 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). under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). UOCAVA is a federal law that provides uniformed and overseas citizens the ability to register and vote absentee in elections for Federal offices.

n If an overseas 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 military voters visit fvap.gov/eo/overview for return ballot mailing dates.

n The Postal Service is temporarily suspending international mail acceptance for certain destinations due to service impacts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, unless otherwise noted, service suspensions to a particular country do not affect delivery of military and diplomatic mail. For the latest information, please visit about.usps.com/newsroom/service-alerts/international/welcome.htm.

APO/FPO/DPO Outbound Absentee Ballots

The Postal Service and the Military Postal Service collaborate to provide special handling of absentee ballots to absent uniformed services voters with UOCAVA-authorized APO/FPO/DPO addresses. 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 only:

n Election officials must mail absentee ballots at least 45 days before the November 3 election.

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.

APO/FPO/DPO Returning Absentee Ballots

Absent overseas uniformed services voters with UOCAVA-authorized 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 voted 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 authorized UOCAVA 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 sort for distribution throughout the United States.

Service Type Identifiers and Improved 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, and have enhanced passive identification and tracking of ballot mail.

When Political Mail STIDs are used as part of an Intelligent Mail® barcode (IMb®), the associated Political Mailpiece scan data is available via Informed Visibility® (IV®) reports. To learn more about Ballot STIDs, see http://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.

The mailpieces that 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 no more than 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.