A digital illustration of many envelopes making their way to a locked mailbox.

Mail-in ballots: When every state starts counting

By Curt Merrill, Daniel Wolfe, Janie Boschma, Adam Levy, Ethan Cohen, Liz Stark, and Ian Berry, CNN
Updated October 27, 2020

Voters are casting ballots early in record numbers this year amid the pandemic — and that’s prompting concerns that it might wind up taking longer than expected to get election results, as officials process millions more mail-in ballots than usual.

The reality is that most states can begin processing absentee ballots in some form before Election Day, which could help avoid delays in reporting results.

But in three critical battleground states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — officials aren’t allowed to start processing early ballots until on or just before Election Day itself, which could delay not just their state results but also, if the Electoral College count is close, potentially leave the whole presidential race up in the air.

Counting votes will also take longer than usual because many states will allow extra time for ballots to arrive after Election Day — as long as they’re postmarked on or before November 3.

Check out the 2020 Election Center for live results and exit polls

For more American voters than ever, mail-in voting is an option this year, but the rules depend on where you live. CNN has surveyed all of the state election offices — here’s what you need to know. Tap or click on your state for more guidance.

Note: This story was updated to include a new map detailing when states begin processing their pre-election ballots. It also reflects updated state policies on mail-in voting as states have made changes to their rules.