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Ballots could take ’14 days round trip’ in the mail, but deadlines for returns vary

August 3, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: The U.S. Postal Service is telling Americans to allow 14 days to receive and return vote-by-mail ballots, therefore voters should consider Oct. 20 Election Day, not Nov. 3.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: Partly false. The U.S. Postal Service did issue guidance in May recommending election officials budget a week for ballots to reach voters, and a week for their return. But the assertion spreading on social media that Election Day should therefore be considered 14 days before the Nov. 3 election fails to take into account that states have different deadlines for returning mail-in ballots, and Postal Service guidance advising voters to request ballots as early as possible.

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THE FACTS: As election officials across the country prepare for a record number of Americans to vote by mail in the upcoming Nov. 3 election as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, posts are being shared online encouraging voters to be aware of news around mail-in voting.

On Thursday, as President Donald Trump tweeted the idea of delaying the election to avoid voting by mail, a post was circulating widely on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter advising voters to be aware of steps they should take to be sure their vote is counted:

“The Postal Service is telling Americans to give every ballot 14 days round trip. That means if you want to vote by mail, and you want to feel good about your vote being counted, Election Day is not November 3. Election Day is Tuesday October 20th. Spread the word.”

Technically, the Postal Service is recommending voters request mail-in-ballots from election officials “no later than 15 days” before Election Day, and is urging jurisdictions to “advise voters to request ballots at the earliest point allowable,” according to a statement sent to The Associated Press.

The “14 days round trip” for ballots cited in the social media post is corroborated by a May letter sent by the Postal Service. In it, the agency recommended election officials budget a week to send voters blank ballots and said voters should send completed ballots back at least one week before the due date.

But that does not mean it is accurate to work backwards 14 days from Election Day to focus on Oct. 20. Most states are already accepting voter requests for vote-by-mail ballots or will begin to next month, according to an analysis by the Fair Elections Center. The deadline to send completed ballots back depends on the state.

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Tammy Patrick, a former Arizona election official and senior advisor at the Democracy Fund, said she agrees with social media posts encouraging people to plan to vote well before Election Day, but warned posts citing specific dates as deadlines could confuse voters given the variation between states.

“On the one hand, it’s good that people are thinking about this,” Patrick said. “But what we don’t want to have happen is for voters to think after Oct. 20 it’s late [and] they shouldn’t try and participate.”

She noted in some jurisdictions, voters can drop vote-by-mail ballots off at designated sites or dropboxes rather than mail them back, and the window voters have to mail back their ballots will depend on the deadlines set by their state.

While more than 30 states require mailed ballots to arrive before or on Election Day, other states will count mailed ballots that arrive after the election as long as they are postmarked by a certain date, usually the day before the election or Election Day.

There is a significant range in these deadlines. California will count ballots that arrive 17 days after the election this year if they were postmarked on or before Election Day, while Kansas requires ballots with Election Day postmarks to arrive within three days of the election.

For this reason, the Postal Service says in its statement to AP, “we recommend that customers who opt to vote through the U.S. Mail must understand their local jurisdiction’s requirements for timely submission of absentee ballots, including postmarking requirements.”

In many states, voters who want to be sure they will receive their ballots in time must request vote-by-mail ballots from election officials ahead of the state deadline. For example, Minnesota voters can request an absentee ballot up until the day before the election, but if they wait that long they will not get their ballot before Election Day. The Minnesota Secretary of State website warns applicants must “Leave time for election officials to mail your ballot.” In contrast, some states will send all registered voters a mailed ballot automatically ahead of the November election.

The social media post circulated amid concerns about possible issues around the Postal Service handling the added workflow during the election. The AP has reported the agency is grappling with revenue losses and cost-saving measures that will likely delay mail processing.

A new directive introduced by incoming Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a donor to President Donald Trump, eliminates overtime for hundreds of thousands of postal workers, according to an AP report earlier this month. The president of the American Postal Workers Union, Mark Dimondstein, told AP on Thursday that postal workers have already noticed a slow down in mail delivery.

“This is keeping me up at night,” Patrick, of the Democracy Fund, told the AP. She recommends voters request and mail back their ballots as early as they can “given the uncertainty of our times -- including a changing landscape at the Postal Service under the new postmaster general.”

In a statement to the AP, the Postal Service said its “financial condition is not going to impact our ability to process and deliver election and political mail.”

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536