Election 2020: How to get ready to cast your ballot

July 28, 2020

With the U.S. facing a global pandemic and a volatile economy, 2020 feels like an especially crucial election year to most Americans. According to a Gallup poll conducted in late April, 56% of adults said they are more enthusiastic about voting than usual. But in order to have their voices heard on Election Day — which falls on November 3, 2020 — voters must be sure to register to vote and get to the polls or mail in a ballot.

“The best way to ensure that you are able to vote on Election Day or to get your ballot mailed in on time is to make a voting plan ahead of time,” says Erin Vilardi, founder of Vote Run Lead, an organization that trains women to run for public office. 

Here’s what you need to know to prepare for the general election. 

How COVID-19 could affect the election

The pandemic is reshaping campaigning, as candidates have not been able — and will continue to struggle — to do their traditional events and in-person outreach, says Vilardi. “Be sure to know who is on your ballot and see how you can engage with them online to learn more,” she recommends. 

Similarly, Election Day will look quite different from previous years as a result of COVID-19. Health risks associated with crowds and long lines on Election Day have state legislatures considering how they might extend their absentee voting options, according to the Brookings Institute. And many states are already taking action by moving to a more open absentee or mail-in voting process, says Vilardi. 

For guidance from trusted health experts on finding healthy, secure and safe ways to cast your ballot, check out HealthyVoting.org, built by leading public health experts and civic tech leaders who have the latest updates to state election law.

How to vote absentee, otherwise known as voting by mail

Absentee voting — which is also referred to as “mail-in voting” and “by-mail voting” — is conducted by mail-in ballot before the day of Election Day. In 2016, nearly one-quarter of U.S. votes (33 million) were cast by either universal mail or absentee ballots. 

Although every state has their own rules, all states will offer a voter an absentee or mail-in ballot if certain conditions are met. Seventeen states require voters to provide an excuse for voting by absentee ballot — such as being sick or out of the state on Election Day — while 28 states and Washington D.C. offer no-excuse absentee voting. Five states have elections that are held exclusively by mail-in ballot.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), almost all states permit voters to return a delivered ballot in person at the office of the local election official (either the county election official or the town/city clerk, depending on who runs elections in the state). Some states allow you to drop off a voted absentee/mailed ballot at Election Day voting locations or in secured drop boxes.

Two important things to know, based on the state where you live:

  • How to vote by absentee or mail: Visit the ACLU’s guide to voting by mail or your state election office website to find your state’s rules.

  • When ballots must be postmarked and received: Check your state’s rules. For instance, in California, ballots must be postmarked by Election Day and received within three days, while in Kentucky, they must be received by 6 p.m. Election Day. For your convenience, we’ve provided a list of state sites below.

One surprising benefit: While filling out your ballot at home, you can spend more time researching who to vote for in often-overlooked local races, or down-ballot races, based on the issues you care most about, notes Vilardi. She recommends researching your options on Ballotpedia.org. “This is a comprehensive website,” notes Vilardi. “But their simple Sample Ballot Tool gives you a great way to know your ballot. If you’re a first time voter, this is a great way to get a sneak peek of who and what will be on your ballot ahead of going to the polls.”

How to do early voting

Given concerns about long lines, you might want to consider voting early. “Early voting days offer you flexibility so that you can get to your polling station over a series of days — usually the week before the Tuesday election,” explains Vilardi. 

According to USA.gov, most states have early voting, and you don’t need an excuse to cast your ballot ahead of Election Day. This early voting chart lists time frames for states that offer early voting. Vilardi points out that early voting locations may also be consolidated this year, due to the pandemic, so don’t be surprised if you have to go somewhere different than where you regularly vote.

Why voting early — either by mail or in person — could help you avoid long lines

Judging from reports of hours-long lines and voters’ difficulties receiving absentee ballots during primary season, it’s quite possible the issue will persist during the general election. 

Dr. Ximena Hartsock, cofounder of D.C.-based Phone2Action, a platform for digital advocacy and public affairs technology, points out that in the nation’s capital in June, voting by mail went smoothly, but lines at in-person voting centers stretched for up to five hours. “At this point, it’s up to us — individuals, organizations and states — to find solutions,” she says.

One useful tool: a voting time estimator for all of the polling locations across the city, like Austin has. You can check your area and see places that seem to have shorter wait times so you can prepare accordingly. Check your city’s government website to find out if this tool is available near you.

However, you could avoid Election Day stress by voting absentee/by mail or hitting your polling place on an early voting day. 

How to register to vote

If you haven’t already registered to vote, you can head over to Vote.gov to do so. It’s possible to register to vote online, as long as you live in 39 states plus the District of Columbia. (Oklahoma has passed legislation and is currently phasing in implementation of their online registration.) 

Find your state below and follow the corresponding link that will lead you to directions on voting in your state.  

A note for first-time voting teens: Some states allow preregistration for teens who are 16, others once they turn 17 and there are also states that have no age requirement but specify that a teen can preregister as long as they will be of voting age by the time of the next general election. Check the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) for your state’s rules. 

You can also download a National Mail Voter Registration Form, which can be filled out onscreen and then printed, or printed and filled out by hand, and then mailed into the correct location listed for your state. Here, you’ll also be able to view state-specific instructions and select the language you’d like the form to appear in.

It’s also worth taking a moment or two to visit the National Association of Secretaries of State’s “Can I Vote” page to make sure you’re registered. “Even if you think you are registered, always double-check your status,” says Hartsock. “You want to make sure you address any issues before Election Day.”

Election sites and registration deadlines by state

State

General Election Registration Deadline 

Alabama 

October 19, 2020

Alaska

October 4, 2020

Arizona

October 5, 2020

California

October 19, 2020

Colorado

October 29, 2020 (you can register in-person on Election Day)

Connecticut

October 27, 2020 (you can register in person on Election Day)

Delaware

October 3, 2020

District of Columbia

October 13, 2020 (you can register in-person on Election Day)

Florida

October 5, 2020

Georgia

October 5, 2020

Hawaii

October 5, 2020

Idaho

October 9, 2020 (you can register in-person on Election Day)

Illinois

October 6, 2020 by mail; October 18, 2020 online (you can register in-person on Election Day)

Indiana

October 5, 2020

Iowa

October 24, 2020

Kansas

October 13, 2020

Kentucky

October 5, 2020

Louisiana

October 5 in-person or by mail; October 14 online

Maine

October 19, 2020

Maryland

October 13, 2020 (you can register in-person on Election Day)

Massachusetts

October 14, 2020

Michigan

October 4, 2020 (you can register in-person on Election Day)

Minnesota 

October 13, 2020 (you can register in-person on Election Day)

Mississippi 

October 5, 2020

Missouri                           

October 7, 2020

Montana

October 5, 2020

Nebraska

October 16, 2020 by mail or online

Nevada

October 6, 2020 by mail or in-person; October 29, 2020 online

New Hampshire

October 27, 2020 (you can register to vote in-person on Election Day)

New Jersey

October 13, 2020

New Mexico 

October 6, 2020

New York

October 9, 2020

North Carolina       

October 9, 2020

North Dakota  

No voter registration process. Bring valid proof of ID and residency to polls in order to vote.

Ohio 

October 5, 2020  

Oklahoma  

October 9, 2020

Oregon

October 13, 2020

Pennsylvania

October 19, 2020

Rhode Island

October 4, 2020

South Carolina

October 5, 2020

South Dakota 

October 19, 2020

Tennessee 

October 5, 2020

Texas

October 5, 2020

Utah

October 4, 2020 by mail; October 27, 2020 in-person or online

Vermont

October 5, 2020 (you can register to vote in-person on Election Day)

Virginia

October 13, 2020

Washington

October 26, 2020

West Virginia

October 13, 2020

Wisconsin

October 14, 2020

Wyoming

October 19, 2020

If you’d like to opt into text and email reminders about registration deadlines, upcoming elections and where to vote, check out TurboVote. Vilardi notes, “They have a great response time to questions, too.”

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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