Is It Too Late to Send Your Mail-In Ballot? And If Not, What’s the Postage?

By Polly Stryker

We received a note the other day asking us to make sure that voters know to put the correct postage on their absentee ballots. That’s when someone in the office who lives in San Francisco chirped, “What’s she talking about? There’s no postage required.” A brief few moments of uproar ensued as we thought we were onto some strange untold story about insidious and widespread post office bias on an actual individual level.

But duh — the answer is, of course (and it’s “of course” only once you know) that San Francisco doesn’t require postage on its ballots and the other counties do. The California Secretary of State’s office told us it’s up to each county to require postage or not.

So if you live in San Francisco — just drop it in the mail then buy yourself a low-cost croissant with the savings. But if you live in Alameda County — well, someone here said when she mailed her ballot there, she was worried she hadn’t put enough postage on the oversized envelope.

Dave Macdonald, the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, says that the county has required postage on absentee ballots for a long time, and he was surprised that San Francisco County doesn’t require stamps. Macdonald told us it’s a pretty big expense, since about 409,000 people in his bailiwick have requested vote-by-mail ballots this election.

In most of Alameda County, voters have two or three ballots to fill out, Macdonald says. The cost to mail them is 85 cents. (But in Berkeley, beware — there are four ballots and the postage is $1.50.)

So the big question we had was: will ballots reach the Registrar of Voters if people make a mistake and don’t put the correct postage on?

“We talk to the post office before every election so they can alert their carriers to be on the lookout for a bright yellow envelope,” says Macdonald. “The ballots will still be delivered even if there isn’t enough postage on the envelopes. Some people put too much, some people put too little, and the post office does a great job. They still deliver to us.”

James Wigdel, spokesperson for the US Postal Service in the San Francisco Bay Area says, “What we do is we instruct our employees to not return any ballots for any reason and get them on their way to the appropriate Registrar’s address that’s on the envelope.”

Voters can avoid postage fees by simply dropping their ballots off at the polls on election day. Up through the closing of the polls on November 6th, people can also drop their ballots in special ballot mailboxes around the county or with city clerks offices in a number of cities. (We have a list of those locations by county here.)

Here’s all the info we found on vote-by-mail and postage for each Bay Area county:

Alameda County

Up to three ballots cost 85 cents. Four ballots (Berkeley) cost $1.50. But ballots will still be delivered if there is insufficient postage on them.

Contra Costa County

Steve Weir, County Clerk Recorder for Contra Costa County, told us it costs 65 cents to return ballots. If voters don’t put postage on the absentee ballot, the County has a postage-due account that gets debited. The post office is not supposed to send it back to the voter with a postage-due notice, as that could delay receipt of the ballot. “No voter should have their ballot disqualified for insufficient postage,” he says, while also cautioning that is, indeed, a risk. Weir says, in fact, that every election someone’s ballot has been returned for insufficient postage, sometimes too late for it to be re-sent.

“If we don’t have it in our hands by 8 p.m. Election night, the ballot doesn’t count,” he says.

Contra Costa County recommends people get their ballots in the mail by Wednesday, 10/31. Well that’s yesterday, it’s true. But Weir says voters are probably safe to mail ballots up through Friday. That said, a lot of mail that is postmarked in the days just before the election does get sent back.

So at a certain point you might want to forget the mail and go vote in person.

Marin County

Registrar of Voters Elaine Ginnold told us that postage is gratis for people in vote-by-mail precincts, which are those with less than 250 voters and no polling place. But for everyone else, vote-by-mail ballots need one first-class stamp. Ginnold says the Post Office says that if a voter understamps a ballot, it will get delivered, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. While the Marin County Department of Elections works closely with the Post Office, which is customarily very cooperative, she says, “I would not say that [delivery without postage] is guaranteed… I have also heard of it going back to the voter.”

She reminds voters that they can drop off ballots at any polling place until 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Napa County

Postage for vote-by-mail ballots costs 65 cents. If someone were to put insufficient postage on the envelope, or none at all, it will get to them and the county would pay for it, says Xioneida Ruiz, elections services manager.

San Francisco County

No postage required. “It was confusing for people to figure out how much postage to put on there,” says John Arntz, director of elections. “It makes voting more accessible.”

“We have two-card, three-card ballots, four-card ballots, five-card ballots. They come in these big envelopes, and people aren’t familiar with it.” Arntz says the city has paid for the postage since 2003.

San Mateo County

Elections specialist Narda Barrientos says postage is paid for those voters who live in mail-ballot precincts, but otherwise the county requires 45 cent postage. If someone makes a mistake and puts on insufficient postage or none at all, the ballot will still be delivered, Barrientos says.

Santa Clara County

Elma Rosas, media officer for the county’s registrar of voters, says if your ballot is in a blue vote-by-mail envelope, postage is 65 cents. If it’s a green envelope, it’s free, because it’s a mail-ballot precinct. If a voter is concerned, they should call the office; 408-299-VOTE/8683, or toll free: 866-430-8683.

Solano County

John Gardner, deputy registrar of voters, says postage is a standard first-class stamp. If postage is missing or inadequate, it’s delivered anyway and charged to the county, he says.

Sonoma County

One first-class stamp is required, says Gloria Colter, assistant registrar of voters. “We have in the past received voted ballots without postage on them. The post office charges it to a postage-due account on the county, so it’s not really free,” she says.

  • Eric Westby

    I was just asking myself this very question! Though given that you mention that the Post Office intends to deliver ballots regardless of postage, it makes me wonder why I should bother. 😉

    • Eric Westby

      A follow-up to my earlier comment: when I went to mail my ballot at the Post Office on San Pablo Ave., in Berkeley, they insisted that the correct postage was only $1.05, not $1.50, and that the Registrar of Voters office had made a mistake. Apparently the envelope is sized just under the dimensions necessary for that extra $0.45 to be required.

      I was skeptical, but he literally refused to let me pay the extra 45 cents! I guess they’ll be delivered regardless. Still, a heck of thing to get wrong on tens of thousands of ballots.

      • Jon Brooks

        Huh. We would follow up on this, but at this point, ya gotta take it in yourself anyway.

  • karen

    Thank you, KQED. You are amazingly thorough and informative, as ever.

  • Kathy

    How many Forever Stamps is equal to $0.65?

    • Jon Brooks

      I believe a Forever Stamp is the equivalent of one First Class stamp, which is currently 45 cents. So you’d need two of them to put you over the top.

  • Kim

    How many forever stamp’s are you suppose to put on the voting envelope?