Data Dive: Pre-Processing Mail Ballots

December 2023 6 min read

Research by: April Tan, Kyle Upchurch, & Kyle Yoder

Following the 2020 presidential election, the vote counting process lasted days before races could be called in several key battleground states, opening the door to misinformation and unfounded doubts about the integrity of the count. In one of those states, Pennsylvania, officials pointed to their state’s prohibition on pre-processing as a major reason why they couldn’t finalize results earlier.

Processing absentee or mail ballots takes time, and allowing some processing to begin before election day reinforces election integrity and improves administrative efficiency. This earlier processing (sometimes called “pre-processing”) gives election officials more time to detect, investigate, and address potential errors or irregularities before election day. It also affords officials more time to notify voters about ballots in need of curing, to duplicate damaged ballots, and to address any other administrative bottlenecks that may arise. And importantly, pre-processing facilitates timely reporting of election results, which can reduce the window of opportunity for misinformation to spread after election day.

As such, most U.S. states allow some processing of absentee or mail ballots to begin before election day. States that do not authorize pre-processing require officials to wait until election day to begin ballot verification and ballot cure, which risks delaying election results until days after polls close—particularly in states with large number of voters casting a ballot by mail. While specific pre-processing timelines and procedures vary across states, the bipartisan consensus is that beginning to process absentee or mail ballots before election day leads to greater integrity, earlier results, and less room for doubt.

Below, we summarize the timelines that different states use for two key components of absentee or mail ballot processing—envelope processing and ballot scanning. Envelope processing procedures vary from state to state and can include signature verification, sorting envelopes, rejecting improperly executed ballots, and preparing ballots for scanning. For the purposes of the analysis below, we identify the start of envelope processing as the earliest of these tasks authorized or required by the state. Likewise, while some states include the step of scanning ballots into tabulators as a part of processing, others include this step as a part of counting or canvassing. The analysis below considers only the moment in time when ballots are scanned into tabulators and does not include when final counts or results are returned by those tabulators. In both analyses, start dates for envelope processing and ballot scanning are based on the earliest possible times authorized or required in statute or regulation; in instances where there are multiple versions of a statute with different effective dates, we summarize provisions that will be in effect for the 2024 general election. All information is current as of December 13, 2023.

Envelope Processing

As Figure 1 demonstrates, 43 states allow envelope processing to begin before election day. A majority (24) of these states begin envelope processing upon receipt of a ballot. In these states, the envelope processing period depends on when ballots are returned by voters and received by election officials, and therefore largely depends on when ballots are distributed. Only six states restrict envelope processing to election day. Nearly half of states allow local jurisdictions some level of discretion in choosing when to start envelope processing, and a handful of such states set specific parameters for such discretion, which may be impacted by jurisdiction size or approval by an entity such as the State Election Board.

Ballot Scanning

While the vast majority of states allow envelope processing to begin before election day, fewer states permit ballots to be scanned into tabulators prior to the election. Just over half of states allow ballot scanning before election day, provided results are not aggregated until election day. The other 20 states permit ballot scanning to begin only at some point on election day, either before or after polls close. Scanning ballots before election day is generally an authorization not a requirement, though a handful of states (including MD, NY, RI, and VA) require at least some mail ballots to be scanned before election day. Overall, more states allow for local discretion in ballot scanning timelines than envelope processing timelines, with such discretion generally impacted by factors such as jurisdiction size, available computing power, equipment testing procedures, or approval by an entity such as the State Election Board. Often, local jurisdictions that elect to scan ballots before they are required to do so must take certain steps, such as submitting a written public notice in advance, implementing an approved security plan, or making use of bipartisan teams of officials or observers.

A chart showing the earliest date states are authorized or required to begin ballot scanning

Additional Resources

Additional information and perspectives on this topic are available at the following resources:


Envelope Processing Ballot Scanning
Alabama Code of Ala. § 17-11-10 Code of Ala. § 17-11-10
Alaska Alaska Stat. § 15.20.201 Alaska Stat. § 15.20.201
Arizona A.R.S. § 16-550 A.R.S. §§ 16-449, 16-550(B), and 16-552(A)
Arkansas A.C.A. § 7-5-416 A.C.A. § 7-5-416
California Cal Elec Code § 15101 Cal Elec Code § 15101
Colorado C.R.S. 1-7.5-107.5 C.R.S. 1-7.5-107.5
Connecticut Conn. Gen. Stat. § 9-140c Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 9-140c and 9-150a
Delaware 15 Del. C. § 5510 15 Del. C. § 5510
District of Columbia CDCR 3-808 CDCR 3-806
Florida Fla. Stat. § 101.68 Fla. Stat. §§ 101.68(2)(a) and 101.5612(2)
Georgia O.C.G.A. § 21-2-386 O.C.G.A. § 21-2-386
Hawaii HAR 3-177-651 and 652 HRS § 11-108
Idaho Idaho Code § 34-1005 Idaho Code §§ 34-1008 and 34-1201; “Directive 2015-2,” Office of the Idaho Secretary of State, October 2, 2015,, pg. 10
Illinois 10 ILCS 5/19-8 10 ILCS 5/19-8(g)
Indiana Burns Ind. Code Ann. § 3-11.5-4-11 Burns Ind. Code Ann. § 3-11.5-4-6
Iowa Iowa Code § 53.23 Iowa Code §53.23
Kansas K.A.R. § 7-36-9 K.S.A. §§ 25-1133 and 25-1134; K.A.R. § 7-36-9; “Election Administration,” in Kansas Election Standards, revised July 17, 2019,, pg. 49
Kentucky KRS § 117.087 KRS § 117.087
Louisiana La. R.S. § 18:1313.1 La. R.S. §§ 18:1313 and 18:1313.1
Maine 21-A M.R.S. § 756 21-A M.R.S. §§ 759 and 760-B
Maryland Md. Election Law Code Ann. § 11-302 Md. Election Law Code Ann. §§ 11-302 and 11-101
Massachusetts ALM GL ch. 54, § 94 ALM GL ch. 54, § 95
Michigan MCLS § 168.766 MCLS § 168.765a
Minnesota Minn. Stat. §§ 203B.121 and 203B.08 Minn. Stat. § 203B.121
Mississippi Miss. Code Ann. § 23-15-639 Miss. Code Ann. §§ 23-15-639 and 23-15-645; “County Elections Handbook,” Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office, revised June 2023,, pg. 45
Missouri § 115.300 R.S.Mo. and § 115.655 § 115.299 R.S.Mo. and § 115.655
Montana 13-13-241, MCA 13-13-241, MCA
Nebraska R.R.S. Neb. § 32-1027 R.R.S. Neb. § 32-1027
Nevada Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 293.269927 Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 293.269931
New Hampshire RSA 659:49, 659:49-b, and 659:50 RSA 659:61, 659:52, and 656:40 et seq.; “New Hampshire Election Procedures Manual 2022-2023,” Office of the New Hampshire Secretary of State, accessed November 13, 2023,, pgs. 67-71 and 76-77
New Jersey N.J. Stat. § 19:63-17 N.J. Stat. § 19:63-22; “Board of Elections Ballot Counting Guide,” Office of the New Jersey Secretary of State, revised May 2023,, pg. 5
New Mexico N.M. Stat. Ann. § 1-6-10 N.M. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-6-10 and 1-6-14
New York NY CLS Elec § 9-209 NY CLS Elec § 9-209
North Carolina N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163-230.1(e) and 163-231 N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163-230.1 and 163-234
North Dakota N.D. Cent. Code, § 16.1-07-12 N.D. Cent. Code, §§ 16.1-07-12 and 16.1-11.1-06
Ohio ORC Ann. 3503.06; “Election Official Manual,” Office of the Ohio Secretary of State, December 20, 2023,, pg. 229 ORC Ann. 3503.06; “Election Official Manual,” Office of the Ohio Secretary of State, December 20, 2023,, pg. 229-230
Oklahoma 26 Okl. St. § 14-123 26 Okl. St. § 14-125
Oregon ORS § 254.478 ORS § 254.478
Pennsylvania 25 P.S. § 3146.8 25 P.S. § 3146.8
Rhode Island R.I. Gen. Laws § 17-20-26 R.I. Gen. Laws § 17-20-26
South Carolina S.C. Code Ann. § 7-15-420 S.C. Code Ann. § 7-15-420
South Dakota S.D. Codified Laws § 12-19-43 S.D. Codified Laws § 12-19-43
Tennessee Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-6-202 Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 2-6-303 and 2-6-304
Texas Tex. Elec. Code §§ 87.027, 87.0241, 87.041, 87.0221, 87.0222, 87.023, and 87.024 Tex. Elec. Code § 87.0241
Utah Utah Code Ann. § 20A-3a-401 Utah Code Ann. § 20A-3a-402
Vermont 17 V.S.A. § 2546 17 V.S.A. § 2546a
Virginia Va. Code Ann. § 24.2-709.1 Va. Code Ann. § 24.2-709.1
Washington WAC § 434-250-110 WAC § 434-250-110
West Virginia  W. Va. Code § 3-3-5(l); “Manual for Election Officials of West Virginia,” Office of the West Virginia Secretary of State, revised January 2022,, pg. 55 W. Va. Code § 3-3-8
Wisconsin Wis. Stat. § 6.88 Wis. Stat. §§ 6.88 and 7.52
Wyoming Wyo. Stat. § 22-9-121 Wyo. Stat. § 22-9-125


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