How to Actually Get Your Vote Counted in This Hellscape of an Election

Whether you're voting by mail or heading to the polls, here are answers to all your questions about how to cast your ballot safely and effectively.
How to Vote by Mail and in Person: illustration of absentee ballots and voting
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

On November 3, Americans will vote in the 2020 general election to choose a president and, to a significant degree, determine the political course of the country. But this year, as is becoming rapidly clear as Election Day approaches, the process of voting itself will look vastly different than it has in the past. 

Due to the pandemic, in-person voting (like taking part in any public activity, especially indoors) may carry risk for vulnerable populations, and/or in places where COVID-19 transmission is high. As a result, many states are allowing voters to cast their ballots by mail. Regardless of where you live, you can request an absentee ballot and return it by mail in order to avoid physically going to the polls. (A heads' up, though: A few states require you to have a reason other than the pandemic to request a mail-in ballot.) You can also track the status of your vote online to ensure it’s been received and accounted for.


Still, you might have some other voting concerns outside of COVID-19: The president has admitted he’s withholding funding to the United States Postal Service to prevent mail-in ballots from being counted; the closure of polling places, creating long lines at the polls; the fact that Black and Latino voters disproportionately and frequently experience voter suppression.

While there’s no one foolproof way to vote this year, having more than one option may quell some fears, or at least help you pick the best option for you. Vote by mail, and you avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19. Fill out your mail-in ballot at home and drop it off at your local elections office or other vote drop boxes, and you avoid any USPS delays. Vote in-person and avoid filling out the paperwork for a mail-in ballot, and ensure your vote is counted then and there. While both in-person and vote-by-mail options are valid, they each come with rules and potential restrictions to consider as you make a voting plan.

Although each state has its own protocols for voting, here are some general answers to a bunch of common questions about making sure your ballot is safely and effectively cast and counted, including resources for figuring out which voting method might be best for you.

How to Register to Vote

How do I check if I'm registered to vote—or even register for the first time?

If you’re at least 18 years old and a citizen of the United States, you’re eligible to vote. (The exceptions are if you’re a permanent legal resident, have certain mental disabilities, and if you’re an incarcerated felon in states like Colorado, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.) On hand, you’ll need to know your address as it’s printed on your ID and a form of identification (this includes a driver's license, passport, current bank statement, or current utility bill). You can check your voter registration status here.


Can I register to vote online, or through the mail?

Most states and Washington D.C. offer online voter registration, where you fill out a form online with your information (name, birthdate, address) and your state-issued driver’s license or identification card number. 

For those states that require your voter registration form to be delivered by mail or dropped off to the county registrar, like Arkansas, Maine, and South Dakota, you can find the form here. You’ll need to print it out, fill it out by hand, and complete the boxes for your name, address, birthdate, ID number, choice of party, race or ethnic group, and signature. Then, mail the application to your state’s board of elections, which you can find the location of here.

What is the deadline for registering to vote?

Based on where you live, you’ll need to register as early as October 5, like Indiana. Other states, like California, allow for day-of-election registration and voting, where you’ll need a form of identification, a social security number, or proof of residency. Find out what the voter registration deadline is where you live here.

How to Vote in Person on Election Day

If you’ve voted in an election in person before, heading to the polls is probably the method of voting with which you’re most familiar and comfortable, or the simplest-feeling option available to you, since it takes the least amount of paperwork. If you’re in a high-risk category or community transmission of COVID-19 is high in your area, if you have a disability, or if you fear voter suppression at the polls, voting in person may not feel like the safest or surest option—in that case, skip to the next section, where there's plenty of information about your other choices.   

Where is my polling place?


If you decide to vote in person on the day of the election, first confirm the location of your polling place and check public transit schedules or shore up your ride to make sure you’ve got plenty of time to get there and that there are no interruptions to your route. 

What time of day can I vote, and how long should I plan to wait in line?

The polls are open between as early as 6 a.m. and as late as 9 p.m. depending on where you live. (Find your polling place and their hours of operation here.) Some states have reduced the number of polling places, like Maryland, which has cut the number of polling places by nearly 80 percent to 282 voting centers where residents of any county can vote. This may create long lines, so make sure you’ve carved out enough time in your day—during the primaries, some voters reported waiting as long as six hours to cast their ballot—in case you run into any potential delays. 

While there’s no federal law that mandates employers give workers time off to vote, thirty states have laws requiring employers to offer time off on Election Day. In Tennessee, for instance, an employee can take three paid hours off of work to go vote. 

Remember, if you’re in line to vote by closing time, you are allowed to vote. Studies have shown long wait times at the polls to deter voters—and previous elections have resulted in accounts of poll workers turning away voters after polls closed. Hang tight, stay in line, and call 866-OUR-VOTE, an election protection hotline, if anyone gives you trouble about it.


How do I protect myself from COVID-19 if I vote in person?

Wear a mask, wash and/or sanitize your hands before and after voting, and practice social distancing as you wait to vote and inside your polling place. As Michelle Obama advised in her DNC speech, “We have got to grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks…. [and] be willing to stand in line." So, anticipate the possibility of more waiting time than usual and be prepared accordingly.

Aside from safety precautions and the potential reduction of polling locations and volunteers, in-person voting will largely look the same, only with more sanitizing and plexiglass: Just show up, check in, step into a socially distanced booth, and cast your vote.

What ID am I going to need to bring with me in order to vote in person?

Some states, like New Hampshire, Washington, and Mississippi, require you to provide identification in order to vote, so make sure you’ve got a form of ID on hand. If you have a photo ID, such as a driver’s license, state-issued identification card, military ID, tribal ID, or a passport, you should be good. A recent utility bill or bank statement showing your address is also valid in states like Colorado and Hawaii.

What are some issues people have faced in the past when it comes to in-person voting, and how do I report them if I encounter them?

When a voter encounters increased scrutiny or questioning from a poll worker, it may amount to voter suppression, which disproportionately affects communities of color. Your rights as a voter include asking for a paper ballot if the machines are down at your polling place, asking for a new ballot if you make a mistake, having access to a voting machine for people with disabilities, and receiving in-person assistance if you have a disability or have difficulty reading or writing in English. 


Additionally, if a poll worker says your name is not on the list of registered voters, you should ask for a provisional ballot for you to complete while election officials investigate the issue. Your vote will be counted when the issue is resolved.

If anyone is questioning your citizenship, criminal record, your race, or spreading disinformation (like needing to speak English in order to vote): That’s voter suppression and you should report the incident to 866-OUR-VOTE or 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA (for Spanish-speaking voters).

How to Vote Early in Person or by Drop-Off

In order to avoid potential crowds, lines, or technological glitches with voting machines, you can opt to either vote early or by mail. In many states, you’ll need to request a mail-in ballot by completing an application. Since every state has different protocols for early voting and voting by mail, it’s extremely important that you confirm the regulations for where you, specifically, live—here's help with how to find that information.

How do I know if I can vote early in person?

Many states allow for early voting, which allows registered voters to cast their ballot in person at the office of the election supervisor, county clerk, or other municipal building before November 3. Dates, hours, and locations vary by state and county, so you’ll need to check with your local election officials to get the details.

Where and how can I drop off a ballot early?


In states like Delaware and Pennsylvania, which do not offer early in-person voting, you can physically drop off your absentee ballot in person at your local county election office by November 3. Check with your local election office website in a few weeks to see where those drop boxes are located (since it’s likely they haven’t been announced yet).

How do I get a drop-off ballot, and will I need to do or provide anything special to do that?

The ballot you’d drop off in secure drop boxes is the absentee ballot you might have to apply for that is delivered to you by mail, which may be an option for you depending on where you live. (More on that below.)

How to Vote by Mail With an Absentee Ballot

The safest way to avoid crowds and minimize your exposure to or participation in the spread of  COVID-19 is to vote by mail. You may have seen the terms “absentee ballot” and “mail-in ballot”—and they both essentially mean the same thing: You receive your ballot in the mail and send it back through the mail, too (unless you choose to drop your absentee ballot off, as described just above). 

Will I have to apply for an absentee ballot before I get one?

Every state offers some form of voting by mail. A handful (Indiana, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas) require a valid excuse to request an absentee ballot, like being over the age of 65, sick, or traveling on Election Day. States verify the information on an absentee ballot request by cross-checking the information on the application with the statewide voter registration database, by comparing the signature on the application with the voter registration signature, or applicants must submit a copy of their ID (in states like Alabama and South Dakota). 


A few of these states which do not list the pandemic as an excuse to request an absentee ballot, like Indiana, have legal cases in the works in order to eliminate these excuses so everyone can request an absentee ballot—it remains to be seen whether these will be resolved by Election Day. 

So far, Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York and West Virginia have announced that pandemic-related excuses are valid for requesting an absentee ballot. 

If I don't need a special reason to apply for an absentee ballot, how do I request one?

In the states where you don’t need a verifiable reason to vote by mail—or where the pandemic is enough of an excuse, like those mentioned above—you must request your mail-in ballot by filling out a form online or physically filling it out and returning it by mail. Just be aware of the deadline for when election officials need to receive your application. (It’s usually some time in late October through Election Day, but again, this depends on what state you live in.) The best course of action is to request your ballot as early as you can—starting right now.

Other states, such as Nevada, California, and New Jersey, are automatically mailing ballots to registered voters, so you don’t need to fill out an application for one. Elsewhere still, like Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota, voters will automatically be mailed applications for absentee ballots—it’s up to the voter to complete and return them. Again, do this as soon as possible to avoid any delays in getting your mail-in ballot.


What do I do once I have my absentee ballot?

Following the instructions included, fill out your ballot completely, sign where noted, and package it in the return envelope. States like Alabama and North Carolina require witnesses or a notary to sign your ballot, so make sure the witness or notary signs in the appropriate spot on your ballot. Double-check to see if your envelope has pre-paid return postage or if you’ll need to supply your own postage. 

Look into signature-matching—the people counting your votes may cross-reference the one you sign on your ballot with others on file with the government, like the signature on your driver's license or previous ballots. If you have questions about making sure yours lines up, call your election officials.

Is my mail-in vote going to be affected by the political attacks against the USPS?

While the general sentiment surrounding the United States Postal Service has been largely anticipatory panic at the likelihood for the agency to deliver and return ballots in time for the election, don’t lose trust in the Postal Service’s ability to safely get your vote to the right place—it's dealt with higher volumes of mail traffic than this before. 

OK, but still: When should I vote to make sure my ballot arrives in time to be counted?

Place your ballot in your residential mailbox or a USPS collection box as soon as possible to ensure it reaches the election office on time. (Mail it at least a week before Election Day to account for any potential delays, according to the USPS.)

Depending on the state, your ballot must be received by the election office by November 3 (Arizona, Arkansas, Michigan, New Hampshire, and others), be postmarked on or before November 3 and arrive at the election office sometime thereafter, even as late as November 13 in some states (Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Nevada, and more). Other states are accepting mail-in ballots even later, like California: Those absentee ballots must be postmarked by November 3, but they don’t have to be received until November 20.

What do I do if I accidentally wait too long to mail my ballot?

You could physically drop off your ballot at an in-person delivery site, like the local clerk’s office, your local polling center on Election Day, and other locations where drop-off boxes are provided. Check with your county elections office to find out where they are. Just make sure you’ve dropped it off on or before November 3.

How can I make sure my mail-in vote was counted?

You can track your ballot online via your respective state’s website to see when it was mailed, received and counted. California, for instance, allows voters to sign up to receive emails, texts, or voice call notifications about the status of their ballot. In Pennsylvania, you can fill out an online form to see where your ballot is. If you don’t feel confident your mail-in ballot got to its appropriate destination by Election Day, you can always show up to your polling place and fill out a provisional ballot. If your mail-in ballot was indeed counted, the provisional ballot will be tossed. If not, the provisional ballot will be your vote. 

OK, that was a lot. But a lot’s at stake here! Do your research, be sure you're registered, and if you're voting by mail, fill out the appropriate forms and get your ballots in the mail ASAP.

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