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VERIFY: How do states know a mail-in ballot was sent in time?

Some states allow mailed ballots to arrive at election offices days after Election Day, as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3.

WASHINGTON — For several months, some elected officials have publicly questioned the validity of the absentee ballot process, and the messaging has not changed post-Election Day. So the Verify team is here to get the facts on how mail-in votes are counted, and how officials can know for sure they were sent in time, in some of the key states.


The state of Pennsylvania splits the mail-in ballots they receive into three groups, according to state guidance to local election officials: 

  • Ballots postmarked correctly on or before Nov. 3 which are counted, 
  • Ballots without a postmark (or with an illegible postmark) which are presumed to have been mailed prior to Nov. 3 which are counted, and 
  • Ballots that were not postmarked and are not assumed to have been sent before Nov. 3 which are not counted.

Whether or not ballots that arrive at election offices after Election Day are counted may be decided by the Supreme Court. 


Maryland Election officials say they check the postmark on each ballot to make sure it was mailed before the Nov. 3 deadline. If a ballot's return envelope has no postmark, "the date the voter signed the oath is used to determine if it was timely mailed; if the date is on or before Nov. 3, it is considered timely mailed." 


Election officials in Nevada, Virginia, Washington and Washington, D.C. all say they will be counting all ballots postmarked by Nov. 3. Iowa officials say their postmarking deadline is Nov. 2. 

Verify researchers reached out to the United States Postal Service to ask about how they handle postmarking ballots. A spokesperson responded with the following statement via email:

"In recognition of the importance that the election laws in some states place on postmarks, it has been the long-standing policy of the Postal Service to try to ensure that every return ballot mailed by voters receives a postmark, whether the return ballot is pre-paid by election officials or mailed with a stamp affixed by the voter."

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