Mailing It In: VBM Ballot Deadlines Explained

Mailing It In: VBM Ballot Deadlines Explained
September 9, 2020
By Democracy Docket

A voter in Sacramento, California and a voter in Flint, Michigan mail their ballots three days before Election Day. Each ballot is postmarked three days before Election Day and arrives at their respective local election offices the day after Election Day. However, only one ballot counts. Why? 

Under some state laws, mail ballots will count as long as the ballot is postmarked by Election Day and arrives at the local election office within a certain number of days after Election Day. This type of vote by mail deadline is known as a postmarked by deadline. For instance, in California, a mail ballot will count if it is postmarked by Election Day and the ballot arrives at the local election office within 17 days after Election Day. 

What does “postmarked” really mean? A postmark is an official imprint on a piece of mail that indicates the location and date the postal service accepted the mail. Postmarking can look a few different ways on your ballot return envelope. For example, postmarks can be hand stamped or automatically stamped with a date or barcode. Recently, there have been instances of ballots arriving with missing or illegible postmarks, which is why election officials have been working closely with local postal officials to ensure ballots are properly postmarked in 2020.


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On the other hand, in some states, for a mail ballot to count, the ballot must be received by Election Day. This type of vote by mail deadline is known as a received by deadline. For example, in Michigan, mail ballots must be received by election officials by 8:00 PM on Election Day. 

So what’s the difference? Requiring voters to have their ballots received by Election Day is different from postmarked by Election Day, because it asks voters to plan for mail processing times. Under a received by deadline, voters must take into account how long it will take for their ballot to arrive at their local election office. In normal years, voters could assume that their ballot would arrive at their local election office within a few days, with plenty of time to be counted. However, this year is different. 

The growing demand for mail ballots across the country is already testing the limits of our local election officials, leading some officials to demand that voters return their mail ballot applications immediately so the officials have enough time to process them. This is further complicated by the alarming reports out of the U.S. Post Office, showing that the Post Office is severely underfunded, understaffed and in desperate need of overhaul in advance of November. 

In the wake of COVID-19, Democracy Docket has been actively litigating across the country to change received by deadlines to postmarked deadlines to ensure every ballot counts this November. Be sure to check out your state’s voter dashboard to see if one of our voting rights victories has impacted your state’s vote by mail deadline.

Now that you understand the main differences between the postmarked by and received by deadlines, the next step is to find out which vote by mail deadline your state uses. Either way, make a plan to vote and send your ballot in as soon as possible.


“Voting Process Explained” is a multi-part series that will cover the basics of voting in America. Each article in the series takes voters through a different part of the voting process, how it varies by state and what voters need to know for November.