Early voters taking advantage of vote-by-mail provisions (where available) began sending in their general election ballots in October 2016, and social media rumors began circulating holding that mailed ballots were subject to being invalidated or returned to sender due to insufficient postage.
Confusion among mail voters was rife, and a contributing factor to that confusion was inconsistency of ballot size and postage requirements across states, counties, and even towns:
— SanDiegoCounty (@SanDiegoCounty) October 18, 2016
Some of the ambiguity was driven by a widely-circulated article from San Diego station KMFB titled simply “Many voters don’t know you need two stamps for mail-in ballots,” an article that didn’t inform readers which voters that information applied to:
If you are sending in a mail-in ballot, you will need an additional 20 cents. The ballot is two pages, which means it will cost a total of 67 cents to mail it back, not the standard 47 cents.
An embedded video revealed that the reporting pertained only to voters San Diego County, not necessarily to voters in other California counties or elsewhere in the U.S., and that votes with insufficient postage would still be counted.
Television station WCMH in Columbus, Ohio, also attempted to notify voters of inaccurate instructions provided about postage for mail-in ballots:
With 22 days to go until Election Day, many voters across Franklin County are mailing in and casting their votes early. But a mistake made by the county’s Board of Elections has some wondering if their absentee ballots will make it to the election office at all.
“When we sent out instructions to about 58,000 folks that have requested the absentee ballots, the instructions indicated $.47 was required to send back the ballot to the Franklin County Board of Elections, but in reality it was $.68 that was required as to where anybody that has two sheets of paper in their ballots,” said David Payne, Deputy Director of the Franklin County Board of Elections.
In that instance, too, elections officials stressed that insufficient postage would not prevent the counting of any votes:
“We immediately got with the U.S. Post Office, the senior officials there. and they indicated to us that all of the ballots will be returned to the Franklin County Board of Elections regardless the amount of postage that was on there,” said Payne.
Voters in California’s San Joaquin County were also advised that their lengthy ballots would need additional postage but would be delivered regardless. Cincinnati station WCPO reported on ballot postage confusion in Ohio due to the fact that ballot sizes (and therefore postage requirements) vary from county to county, even though all use the same outer mailing envelope:
For the third year in a row, Ohio absentee voters are not sure how many stamps to place on the oversized absentee ballot.
It just says “Affix First Class Postage,” which Tammy Wirkamp said is not very helpful. “It’s very confusing,” she said.
Beverly Brown even called her Board of Elections, but is still confused. “The stuff coming from the Board of Elections was not very clear,” she said.
And in a year when there is so much concern about possible election fraud and missed votes, inconsistencies over postage is dumb. Really, really dumb … [We] checked with the Hamilton County Board of Elections, and learned a surprising fact: the outside envelope does not say how many stamps you need because it varies from county to county, and even from own to town within a single county.
Colorado voters were similarly warned to ensure their ballots were mailed with sufficient postage, but it was not clear if election officials had arranged for ballots with insufficient postage to be received:
— Colleen Ferreira (@ColleenFerreira) October 17, 2016
Many voters were of the belief postage ought not be required for submission of ballots by mail:
Absentee Ballot isn’t postage paid? For all the things my taxes pay for and I wish they didn’t THEY COULD AT LEAST FRONT ME A STAMP — ?Rain? (@rainspirit11) October 19, 2016
Absentee ballot came today. I have to put postage on it?! That seems…unreasonable.
— Dark & Stormy (@JRWStormy) September 28, 2016
In March 2016, an uptick in voting by mail led to new USPS guidelines (not rules) for best practices with respect to election mailings, and that guidance [PDF] advised officials of an increase in returned ballots and suggested they make arrangements with Postal Service officials to handle ballots lacking proper postage:
Not all voters can get to the polling place on Election Day. An absentee ballot is the printed ballot marked by an absent voter, sealed in a special envelope, and given or mailed to the municipal clerk. The number of ballots mailed back to election officials with insufficient postage is on the rise. Each election cycle presents a different set of parameters for ballot creation and for the size and weight of the return mailpiece.
Election officials should consult with Postal Service officials to determine the proper postage required for mailing ballots to voters and the return of ballots to election officials.
The Bipartisan Policy Center reiterated USPS’ stance on ballots with insufficient postage, but those recommendations are not binding [PDF]:
The USPS says that ballots should never be returned to the voter for lacking postage; they should always be delivered to the election official.
Depending on the jurisdiction, mailed-in ballots may require more than a single first-class postage stamp, and ballots lacking proper postage may or may not be delivered to election officials for counting. Voters unsure of postage requirements for their mail-in ballots should check with their local election board or post office to ensure proper delivery.
Beginning in 2019, all California vote-by-mail ballots became prepaid, with voters no longer needing to apply their own postage. California Assembly Bill No. 216 was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on 18 July 2018, amending Section 3010 of the state’s Elections Code.
- 29 January 2019: Updated with details on California Assembly Bill No. 216.
Carter, Tyler. “Instructions List Wrong Postage on Absentee Ballots.”
WCMH-TV. 17 October 2016.
Greene, Sean and Keara Castaldo. “New Postal Service Guidance on Election Mail, Absentee Ballots.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts. 30 March 2016.
Ibarra, Rich. “Mail-In Ballots Might Require Extra Postage.”
Capital Public Radio. 20 October 2016.
Lee, Angie. “Many Voters Don’t Know You Need Two Stamps for Mail-In Ballots.”
KFMB. 18 October 2016.
Ludlow, Rich. “Didn’t Put Enough Postage on Your Absentee Ballot? It Will Still Get Delivered.”
The Columbus Dispatch. 17 October 2016.
Matarese, John. “Dumb: Confusing Postage for Absentee Ballots.”
WCPO-TV. 20 October 2016.
USPS Postal Bulletin. “Your 2016 Official Election Mail Communications Plan.”
17 October 2016.
Bipartisan Policy Center. “The New Realities of Voting by Mail In 2016.”
California Legislative Information “AB-216 Vote by mail ballots: identification envelopes: prepaid postage.”