Why you should request your November mail ballot as soon as possible, and when you can expect to receive it

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Why you should request your November mail ballot as soon as possible, and when you can expect to receive it
A worker processes mailed-in ballots from Tuesday's primary election, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton, Wash., south of Seattle.Ted Warren/AP
  • This year, a record number of American voters are expected to cast their ballots from home for the November 3 election because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • North Carolina was the first state to start sending out ballots to voters on September 4, 2020, 60 days before the election.
  • Most other states begin sending out ballots three to six weeks out.
  • There's no guarantee that you'll get your ballot or that it'll be returned back to your election office by any specific date, or within a specific time.
  • Experts and officials are encouraging voters to apply for their ballots as soon as possible to ensure every vote is counted.

More Americans than ever are expected to vote from home instead of going to the polls in person this November, with a Washington Post analysis finding that over 190 million voters will either receive ballots in the mail or be able to vote by mail without an excuse beyond fear of contracting COVID-19.

If you're a registered voter in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington, the District of Columbia, or some counties in Montana you'll most likely be receiving a ballot in the mail from your local election officials and won't need to take further action.

Some more states will be sending all or most voters mail ballot applications, which you can easily fill out and return to get your ballot.

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In addition to the states sending voters a mail ballot, voters can already request their November mail ballots in every US state. You can find specific deadlines to request and return your mail ballot here.

Here's when states starting sending out November general election ballots to all voters or those who have affirmatively requested them, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

While the timing varies between states and counties, in general, the earlier you request your ballot, the sooner you'll get it.

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And importantly, the US Postal Service has told election officials they cannot guarantee that election mail will be delivered inbound to voters or outbound back to election offices by any specific date. The Postal Service recommends that voters plan for their ballot to take at least a 14-day round trip to get to them and back, and advises voters sending their ballots back through the mail do so at least seven days before the election, but ideally sooner.

North Carolina became the first state to start sending out ballots to voters on September 4, 2020, 60 days before the election. More states are set to start sending out ballots this week of September 14. Election officials in two key swing states, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, are unable to begin sending out ballots this week as planned due to ongoing litigation with the Green Party over access to the ballot in those states.

It's also important to note that because election administration in the United States is decentralized down to the county level, the timeline for when states start sending out ballots can vary somewhat from county to county within states and may be changed due to the pandemic. When in doubt, check with your state and local election officials for more specific information.

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Above all, experts and election officials are urging Americans to request and return their mail ballots as soon as possible and not wait until right before the election, where local election offices are likely to be slammed with an influx of last-minute ballot requests.

By now, Americans are all-too-familiar with the concept of flattening the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic by keeping the rate of infections down to avoid overwhelming the capacity while extending the outbreak.

Experts have applied the same analogy to mail voting, telling Insider that in order to avoid overwhelming the capacity of their local elections offices, voters must flatten the curve of mail ballot requests by requesting theirs as soon as possible, ideally months or weeks in advance, and return their ballot as soon as possible.

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The sooner you request your ballot, the sooner you'll receive it, which means you'll be able to send it back early and have the peace of mind knowing that your ballot arrived at your election office in plenty of time. If you send your ballot back at the last minute, you leave your vote up to chance.

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