For a vote by mail system to be efficient and effective, it is not enough for voters to be sent a ballot. States must also provide voters with adequate options for returning those ballots. Whether it’s a secure, video monitored drop box, a drive-up drop off location, a county clerk’s office, or by mail with a visit to your local USPS, voters probably have more options than they realize.
Beginning with the most well known return option, voters will, as always, have the option to return their ballot by mail. Many states have implemented additional policies that make returning a ballot using the U.S. Postal Service easier than ever before. For example, the majority of states provide prepaid postage on all absentee ballots.
Regardless of whether your state provides prepaid postage, The National Vote at Home institute recommends that voters put their ballot in the mail as soon as possible to ensure it is received in plenty of time. Many states allow county clerks or local boards of elections to process mail ballots before election day. By returning ballots in a timely manner, voters can ease an election day processing crunch and ensure that there is adequate time to “cure” their ballot if it is rejected for some reason.
If a voter decides they want to return their ballot “in person,” meaning drop it off at a given location or drop box, the options for each state vary (as always, please contact your local election office to confirm all of the possible ballot return options in your precinct). Drop boxes have become increasingly popular this election cycle and are a secure, contactless option for returning mail ballots. While many states have permanent drop boxes, others are offering temporary drop-off locations for the November election. Both options are indicated on the map below.
While many states offer ballot drop boxes or ballot drop-off locations, the availability of those boxes or locations varies. For example, while Texas does have places to drop off a ballot, there is only one location per county. In the event that the box or drop off site is inconveniently located or inaccessible for certain voters, the National Vote at Home Institute encourages voters to take advantage of other ballot return options in their state.
Many states also allow voters to return a ballot at the voter’s specific polling location. Like drop boxes, this is a great option for voters who perhaps have filled out their ballot closer to election day and are concerned that it will not reach election officials in time to be counted. Voters should go to their assigned polling location, though a few states do allow voters to return their ballot at any polling place in the county (please check with your local election officials if you intend to drop off your ballot at a different polling location from the one you typically use to vote in person).
It is important to note that Nebraska only allows ballot return at polling places in certain counties and North Carolina does not accept ballots at polling places, but will accept them at early voting locations. Iowa, Kentucky, and Florida do not accept ballots at polling places, but will spoil an absentee ballot for a voter there, allowing the voter to cast a ballot in person. But, as mentioned in a previous Medium post, voters in Kentucky can only cast a ballot in person if they have not received their mail ballot by October 28, or if they spoil their mail ballot at the county clerk’s office no later than 7 days prior to the election.
Voters can often go to the source, their local election office, to return a ballot. This is the original form of “in person return” and is available in nearly every state. Whether it’s called a Board of Elections office, a County Clerk’s office, or something else, it is a convenient and surefire way to return a ballot and it avoids a trip to the post office! Only three states do not allow ballots to be returned at election offices, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Missouri. Kentucky has drop boxes located at every board of elections office, so it is categorized as allowing election office return.
A review of these maps reveals a few key takeaways. Most states allow voters to return ballots in person, using some method other than the postal service. This means that, in most cases, if a voter does not have time to mail their ballot or chooses not to for some other reason, they are not out of options. Tennessee, Missouri, and Mississippi are the only states that do not allow drop boxes, polling place drop off, or election office ballot returns.
Despite these cases, it is easier than ever in most states for voters to return ballots and make sure their vote counts. States like California, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Arizona (among others) offer drop boxes, polling place return, and election office return! And remember, if your state offers ballot tracking, be sure to check in on your ballot and confirm that it arrives and is accepted. Happy voting!