If you're away from home on Election Day or (in the states where it's allowed) simply prefer to skip the lines, you'll be voting by mail. This lets you fill out the ballot at home and return it at your leisure — up to a point, that is. If you've never done this before, there's a lot you ought to be aware of. Here's everything you need to know if you're voting by mail for the first time.
First off, you need to get your ballot. Typically the ballot is mailed to you from your local election officials — although you can also pick it up in some jurisdictions, and Americans living overseas are sometimes mailed their ballots via email (each state has different rules). To see if you're still able to request a ballot, see this list of deadlines put together by Vote.org.
It's possible that in your state it has already passed, in which case you'll definitely want to vote on Election Day at your polling place. If you're lucky enough to be able to mail in the request or pick up a ballot in person, keep reading — but don't put the rest of the process off, because it needs to be returned in a timely fashion, too.
First, you're going to want to fill out the ballot. There are instructions inside the material that you're given. Follow it closely, including what color ink pen to use and how to fill in the ovals or squares where you mark your preferred candidate. There's also likely a secrecy envelope that you put your ballot in and an affidavit you will have to sign. But follow the exact instructions they give you to make sure you do it right.
Once it's filled out right, you want to make sure it arrives to the election officials by the deadline. In many states that is Election Day — and that does not mean postmarked by Election Day, but, rather, received on Election Day.
The deadline to receive the ballot is available on the list of deadlines organized by Vote.org. But, just to be extra safe, try and find this information directly from your state's Secretary of State or board of elections, etc. To find their official website, you can use USA.gov's official list with links.
When you go to mail your ballot, see if postage is included — in some states it is. If not, you're going to want to see how many stamps are required to send in the ballot (as many as three). Of course, you can go to the post office and mail it from there — or use Stamps.com — but that takes away some of the ease, which is often the point of the mail-in ballot to start with. Also, an interesting note is that the USPS will deliver it even if you're short on stamps.
If you think the mail carriers won't get the ballot in on time, in many states you have the option to hand deliver the ballot — or even have someone deliver it for you if you sign an affidavit allowing them to do so. But again, this depends from state to state and you'll want to double check the local regulations.
The key thing now is to get your ballot ASAP — if you can — and make sure it arrives by your date's deadline, Election Day, or even sooner.