At the absentee ballot parties organized by assistant professor Allison Rank and her political science students at the State University of New York at Oswego, young voters can sip apple cider and eat donuts as they fill out their ballots. But the main draw is the free stamps. “The stamp was actually the thing I was concerned about,” one freshman told Rank after she explained the process of completing and mailing in a ballot. According to Rank, only one store on the rural upstate campus sells postage. It has limited hours and only takes cash, which many students don’t carry. It’s not only students who may be short a stamp this election. An increasing number of Americans vote by mail in an age when fewer of us have a reason to keep postage on hand. But it’s long been an open secret among election officials: Even though the return envelopes on many mail-in ballots say “postage required,” the U.S. Postal Service will deliver even without a stamp.
“In cases where postage on returning Absentee or Vote-By-Mail ballots has not been affixed or is insufficient, it is the U.S. Postal Service’s policy to not delay returning ballots to the appropriate Board of Election as addressed on the return ballot envelope,” Postal Service spokesperson Kim Frum said in an email to ProPublica. “The Postal Service is steadfast in our commitment to support democracy. We will not deny a voter their right to vote by delaying a time-sensitive ballot because of insufficient postage.”
Someone has to pay for that stamp, however, which is why neither the Postal Service nor election administrators publicize the fact that your ballot will be delivered without it.
“It’s absolutely the case that postage is required; it’s just a question of if the voter fails to put sufficient postage on, what happens then,” said Tammy Patrick, senior adviser for the elections program at the Democracy Fund.