Skip Navigation
Analysis

What if Mail Ballots Arrive After Election Day Without a Postmark?

There are alternate ways to check when a ballot was mailed.

October 30, 2020

Post­marks are the primary evid­ence elec­tion offi­cials use to verify the date a ballot was cast in states that accept ballots that arrive after Elec­tion Day. Yet post­marks are not always reli­ably stamped on ballot envel­opes, putting some voters at risk of disen­fran­chise­ment unless elec­tion offi­cials use altern­at­ive meth­ods of veri­fy­ing the date.

In these highly charged times, where impro­pri­ety is routinely proclaimed, we are sure to hear base­less alleg­a­tions that late arriv­ing ballots without a post­mark are proof of fraud. It is import­ant to under­stand, espe­cially as the use of mail ballots surges, that ballots arriv­ing after Elec­tion Day without a post­mark are not suspi­cious. Every effort should be made to verify they were timely cast and count them.

Post­marks will play a role in almost half of states this year. In 23 states and the District of Columbia, ballots are accep­ted after Elec­tion Day as long as elec­tion offi­cials verify they were cast on or before Elec­tion Day. That includes 19 states that allow ballots cast by Elec­tion Day and four states (Iowa, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah) that accept ballots cast by the Monday before the elec­tion. Addi­tion­ally, Utah and Arkan­sas require all mailed ballots to have a post­mark even if they arrive by Elec­tion Day.

In nearly all of these states, the relev­ant rules or stat­utes specific­ally refer­ence post­marks being used to determ­ine when the ballot was cast. When post­marks are miss­ing or illegible, it can lead to elec­tion offi­cials not being able count ballots. For example, in the Wiscon­sin and New York primar­ies this year, there were wide­spread reports of ballots miss­ing post­marks. Many of those ballots were not coun­ted in Wiscon­sin, while some were coun­ted in New York City thanks to a lawsuit on behalf of voters.

While post­marks factor into determ­in­ing which votes get coun­ted, it’s worth remem­ber­ing that this is not what they were not designed for. In fact, post­marks were designed simply to prevent the reuse of stamps, not as a ballot valid­a­tion system. Not all mail is required to receive a post­mark, though to address the prob­lems that arose in the primary, the Postal Service has reis­sued guidelines that all returned ballots be post­marked. Yet in August, an internal audit found that all ballots were still not getting post­marked.

The USPS inspector general iden­ti­fied a number of common reas­ons that miss­ing post­marks happen, includ­ing envel­opes stick­ing together when processed on a machine and person­nel simply being unaware that all returned ballots, even those in prepaid reply envel­opes, need to receive a post­mark.

Consid­er­ing the high volume of elec­tion mail the post office is deal­ing with and the oper­a­tional changes and reversals this year, errors are inev­it­able. So if a voter’s ballot is cast on time and arrives before the dead­line, elec­tion offi­cials should do everything within their discre­tion to try to count those ballots.

At least 10 states (Cali­for­nia, Illinois, Mary­land, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Wash­ing­ton and West Virginia) accept ballots with miss­ing or illegible post­marks that arrive after Elec­tion Day.

There are ways for elec­tion offi­cials to verify that a ballot was cast by Elec­tion Day, even if it arrives without a legible post­mark. For example, most states use bar codes that encode track­ing inform­a­tion directly on ballot envel­opes. Those systems can be used to help determ­ine when a ballot was returned to a post office.

Elec­tion offi­cials can also coordin­ate with post offices to try to determ­ine when a partic­u­lar batch of mail with miss­ing post­marks was picked up. And elec­tion offi­cials can even rely on the date a voter writes on their envel­ope as evid­ence a ballot was cast on time.

Voting by mail has allowed millions of Amer­ic­ans to vote safely this year, and the lack of a post­mark should­n’t stand in the way of the right to vote.