Tara Jacoby for Vox
Mail-in ballots, safe polling locations, and fraud allegations are only a few of the concerns in the pandemic election.
Lettie Fickling, of Colorado, has always voted by mail, a process she says she enjoys. But with this year’s election, she’s not so sure. She’s concerned that recent issues with the postal service could prevent her ballot from getting in on time. She also has fears about voting in person and potentially being exposed to Covid-19. She’s still not sure how she’ll vote.
“I’m having all these worries despite living in a state with some of the best voter protections, best mail-in voting infrastructure, and highest voter turnout,” Fickling told Recode. “I can’t even imagine how worried people must be in places like Texas.”
Because of the pandemic, more Americans than ever are facing the same decision as Fickling this year. With expanded access to mail-in voting, it’s expected that tens of millions more people will vote by mail than have in previous elections.
At the same time, the United States Postal Service, upon which much of the mail-in voting process depends, has instituted cost-cutting measures that have delayed and disrupted mail deliveries. In-person voting may be more difficult this year, too; the pandemic has limited the locations that can be used as polling centers as well as the number of people willing to work in them — not to mention the number of people willing to use them. All this, heaped on a system that already had its problems.
“Coronavirus has laid bare all the cracks in our election system and really put strain and stress on a system that’s not resourced well enough to handle a lot of strain or stress,” said Myrna Pérez, the director of Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections Program.
The best thing that you, the voter, can do now is make a plan for how you’re going to vote and be as prepared as possible to do it. Do this as early as you can, and take all of your options into account before deciding which is best for you. To help you know what those options are, we’re answering some frequently asked questions about registering to vote, mail-in voting, and voting in person.
One thing to note: Voting rules differ state by state, and there can even be variances within individual states. So make sure you know what’s allowed and available where you live. Your options for voting may be different this year, and they may even change between now and Election Day, so look for the most up-to-date and reliable resources. We’ve provided links to some of those here:
So … what should I do first?
Before you can vote, you have to register (unless you live in North Dakota). New voter registrations are down significantly due to the coronavirus, which has closed DMV offices that usually account for the vast majority of voter registrations and canceled in-person voter registration events.
“We’re really behind in our numbers related to voter registration this year,” Jeanette Senecal, senior director of Mission Impact for the League of Women Voters, told Recode.
Most states let you register online, so you can do it quickly and easily without having to leave your house. Register as soon as possible because some states have deadlines in early October. And it’s a good idea to make a plan to vote early, if you have already made up your mind.
I’m already registered, so this doesn’t apply to me, right?
Even if you think you’re registered, there’s a chance you’ve been purged from voter rolls. So you’ll want to double-check to make sure — especially if your state has an early registration deadline. Nearly every state has a way to check your registration status online, or you can call your local election official.
“I check my registration status about a month before Election Day, a week before Election Day, and I check it the day before Election Day,” Pérez said. “If something happened, you want to know about it before you go into the polling place.”
Make sure your local board of elections has your current address. If you’ve recently moved to another state, you will need to register in that state. And if you’ve moved so recently that you don’t yet have identifying documents with your new address (or if you don’t have an address at all), you’ll probably need to check with your local election official to find out how you can still register. Every state has to let you vote if you don’t have an address, but some make it much harder to do this than others.
I’m hearing a lot about mail-in voting this year. Can I do that?
Probably, but it depends where you live. While all states have some form of mail-in voting, only a few of them primarily conduct their elections this way. In most states, you’ll have to request a mail-in, or absentee, ballot. Make sure you request this ballot with plenty of time for your board of elections to mail it to you and for you to return it. With the post office delays, this might be more time than you’d usually expect, so make sure you’re keeping up with your locality’s deadlines and building in enough time.
This year, many states have expanded access to mail-in voting due to the pandemic. For instance, some are not making voters state a reason for voting absentee, while others are allowing them to use the coronavirus as cause to request an absentee ballot. But some states have not done this, and if you live in one of those, you can only vote by mail if you meet certain eligibility requirements.
It’s important to know what your locality’s rules are before you even request a mail-in ballot because doing so may mean you can’t vote in person at all, even if you don’t send your mail-in ballot back. Or you may have to bring the mail-in ballot to the polling location with you to be voided before you can vote in-person.
Be aware that some states are still in the process of expanding access or have pending litigation to limit access to mail-in voting, so things could change. Make sure you’re consulting the most current sources of information.
Okay, I got my mail-in ballot. What next?
If you’ve never voted by mail before, it’s especially important that you familiarize yourself with a process you’re encountering for the first time; there may be rules you have to follow that you didn’t anticipate, like which writing utensil to use, or that you may have to sign the ballot envelope. Follow instructions to the letter — not only for the ballot itself but also for the envelope you have to return it in.
“People get hung up because they didn’t realize that the envelope that the ballot came in is the one that you have to return to them,” Pérez said. “A lot of people forget to sign it.”
Kentucky, for example, requires signatures on multiple envelopes:
If you’re in a household with multiple voters with their own ballots, be careful to keep them (and the envelopes) separate from each other to avoid mix-ups that will invalidate everyone’s vote.
“People might think that to save money they can return multiple ballots in the same envelope, but in fact you need to return them individually,” Senecal said.
Hundreds of thousands of ballots are rejected due to simple mistakes every year. You don’t want yours to be one of them.
Do I have to return my mail-in ballot by mail?
Most states require that you receive your ballot in the mail, but you don’t have to return it that way. Every state allows you to hand-deliver it to your local board of elections, and some states have drop boxes specifically for ballots. Some states will let you drop your vote off at polling locations during early or normal voting hours, and some states will allow you to designate someone else to return your ballot if you can’t. Again, look up your state’s rules to see what you’re allowed to do.
How do I know if my mail-in ballot has been received?
Most states have a way to track your ballot, which should give mail-in voters added peace of mind. Unfortunately, not all of them offer this. (You should check your state’s election website to learn more details — here’s a handy list of links.) And some states will even give you a chance to verify your vote if there’s an issue, such as a non-matching signature. Some, however, will just throw out your vote without giving you a chance to verify it. You may never even know it was rejected.
If you live in one of those states and you’re not comfortable with that uncertainty, mail-in voting might not be your thing. Jared Christensen, of Utah, told Recode that his mail-in ballot was rejected in 2016 because, like thousands of others, his signature didn’t match what the local election officials had on file for him. He was given an opportunity to verify it, but he’s voted in person ever since. This year, however, he might go back to mail-in voting.
“I would prefer to vote with mail-in, especially if [coronavirus] cases spike again with school starting up,” Christensen said.
I keep hearing that mail-in voting is more susceptible to fraud. Is that true?
It’s certainly understandable that some people have concerns about mail-in voting, a process that many people haven’t used before, know little about, and that some states have rushed into doing on a large scale for the first time. However, there is no evidence that mail-in ballots are any more prone to fraud than in-person votes, and the states that already do largely by-mail elections have not reported more incidents of fraud than the states that don’t. As we’ve detailed above, states have very strict rules about how to receive, fill out, and return mail-in ballots that are designed to prevent fraud, among other checks and balances.
Even the loudest voice trumpeting unproven claims that mail-in ballots are major sources of fraud, President Trump, mails in his own ballot. He has even started encouraging his followers to do so as well.
Mail-in voting isn’t for me. What about just voting in person?
For those who can’t or don’t want to vote by mail, there’s always the option to vote in person. Many states will even let you vote in person early, which could reduce potential waiting time if you’re nervous about being in line with a lot of people. Check with your state or local board of elections to make sure you know where, when, and how to vote early.
Even if you’ve voted in person before, things will probably be a little different this time around. For instance, your usual voting location might have changed. So check as close as possible to the election to make sure you’re going to the right place, that you have transportation to get there, and know what you might need to bring with you to be able to vote — some states, for instance, require you to have a form of ID.
But I’m afraid that voting in person will expose me to the coronavirus.
That’s a valid concern, and checking with your local officials to find out what safety precautions your polling place is taking for Covid-19 will hopefully give you some guidance. Some things you might want to ask about: Are the poll workers masked? Are the voters required to wear masks and social distance? Will hand sanitizer be available? Will surfaces be frequently disinfected? Depending on the answers to those questions, you may feel better about in-person voting, or you may decide that mail-in is a better option for you. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Brennan Center for Justice have come out with guides on best practices for safe in-person voting, and they’re a good place to start to find out more.
Some experts believe voting in person this year should be considered fairly safe. Senecal says she’s heard good things about how polling locations are preparing for safe in-person votes, but she encourages people to bring their own supplies if they’re concerned the polling place won’t have enough, like a personal bottle of hand sanitizer. If possible, vote during the less-busy times (mid-morning and mid-afternoon) to reduce how much time you’ll have to spend in line and how crowded your polling location will be.
Can I just vote twice, like President Trump told me to do?
Voting twice is illegal, but some states do let you cast a mail-in ballot and vote in person; your in-person vote will count and the vote by mail will be discarded. But some states won’t let you do this. Check with your local official to find out what the rules are in your state.
What you shouldn’t do is use an in-person vote to “make sure” your mail-in ballot was counted, as Trump suggested. That will lead to longer lines and wait times as well as increase the risk of spreading the coronavirus. It’s also unnecessary when many states let you track your mail-in ballot from the comfort of your own home. If you’re truly concerned that your mail-in vote wasn’t received and want to vote in-person, fill out a provisional ballot at the polling location. That will be counted if your mail-in ballot, for whatever reason, isn’t received.
I heard there’s a shortage of poll workers and I want to help. What can I do?
Fear of in-person voting has not only caused the rise of mail-in voting but has also led to an anticipated shortage of poll workers and the number of polling locations, either because the usual locations don’t want to host crowds this year or they can’t get the staff to run them.
“There’s going to be a shortage of resources, there’s going to be a problem with poll workers,” Pérez said. “I can tell you that lots and lots of people are working super hard to try and fill the poll worker gap.”
This is getting too complicated for me. Should I just skip voting this year?
No! In fact, it’s more important than ever that you vote.
There are bound to be some glitches or snafus on Election Day, as there are every year. All the new rules and changes will likely add to the confusion. Your ballot might take longer to arrive in the mail, you might have to wait longer than usual at the polling location, poll workers might not be as speedy or well-versed in voting rules as you’d hope. If you think that your right to vote is being infringed on, you can call your local elections official, or your state might have an election protection hotline, or you can call the American Civil Liberties Union’s 1-866-OUR-VOTE.
“The reality is, this is going to be an election unlike one that we have lived through,” Pérez said. “I think it’s going to be critically important that voters be very strong advocates for their right to vote, but also understand that we’re in this together and be patient and constructive.”
When will we know who won?
Experts stress that Americans should be prepared not to have the night-of results we’ve become accustomed to and that this is a normal part of the process. Some states accept ballots as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, which means they may not receive some votes until after that day has passed. It will take time to process and count all the votes, and some states can’t even start doing that until the in-person polls close.
“This is the process working,” Senecal said. “The officials are taking the time to ensure that every vote in their communities is counted. This is not an unusual process. This is actually the process that happens every single cycle. The official vote count and the official results have never been available on Election Day.”
So whoever is leading when you go to bed on November 3 may well not be the winner, simply because relatively few ballots have been counted at that point. That’s especially important to keep in mind now that the president is suggesting that such a scenario means that the election was somehow “rigged.”
“I can imagine a lot of extraordinarily good and very compelling reasons why we might not know on Election Day,” Pérez said. “I don’t think voters understand that there’s that side of it.”
At some point, of course, we will have the final election results. We’ll also know if the current election system is built to handle national crises that make it harder to vote in person. If nothing else, we’ll know what we need to do to ensure easier, free, and fair elections next time — pandemic or not. Hopefully, our elected officials will act on that.
“The thing that I’m most worried about is that, as a country, we’re not going to learn from this experience,” Pérez said. “In the best of circumstances, on the best day, we under-fund and under-resource our elections. We do not build in enough resiliency into our systems. And our right to vote is not only fundamental, it is the way we resolve political differences peacefully in this country.
“Our elections are so important, but they need to be built to withstand whatever crisis of the moment gets thrown at us.”
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