We’re in the middle of a pandemic. You’re busy. Things are confusing.
But voting really matters.
With planning and a few precautions, it shouldn’t be any more difficult this year. Here are the three major ways to vote, and tips for each:
Voting in Person
This is voting the way you picture it in black-and-white movies: On a Tuesday in early November, people line up at middle schools, libraries and churches, chatting with neighbors while navigating past a thicket of campaign signs for candidates on the ballot.
This Nov. 3 might be rather different, given the coronavirus pandemic.
But if you wear a mask and stand six feet apart from others, you can most likely protect your health. And it might also help to build in extra time: People are being extra cautious, so voting may take a little longer.
What will be the same
Most elections agencies maintain consistent polling places so voters won’t be confused about where to go. If you always vote at a nearby high school, that’s probably still where you’ll go if you vote on Election Day. If the precinct moved — some will, because of the pandemic or a lack of poll workers — the information should be available on the local elections agency website. Competent elections administrators will send a postcard a few weeks before Election Day reminding registered voters where to cast ballots.
Depending on where you live, it may be necessary to show government-issued photo identification to poll workers. They will have a list of the registered voters in your precinct.
If you’re not already registered to vote, roughly 20 states and Washington, D.C., allow same-day voter registration at the polls, with identity requirements that vary by state.
How to vote if you’re not on the list
If your name doesn’t show up on the list of registered voters in your precinct, or if you didn’t bring the proper identification, you can probably cast a provisional ballot. This essentially allows you to vote, provided any hiccup gets cleared up by whatever the local deadline is for such ballots to be counted.
This may require returning to a local elections headquarters to show documentation that you are indeed eligible to vote where you live.
If you expect long lines, or hear about them from neighbors who got to the polls before you did, make sure to come prepared. Bring a lawn chair and a good book, or an external charging device for your phone. If you arrive in line close to the poll closing time, remember that in most places, everyone who is in line when the polls close is allowed to vote as long as they remain in line.
Make a plan for voting safely. Look at a sample ballot ahead of time to prepare. Bring a mask and hand sanitizer. If you can, try going midmorning, when the lines tend to be shorter.
It’s possible your polling site may have moved because of fewer poll workers — check with your local board of elections for more information.
Bring whatever documentation or identification your state requires.
If you’re in line when the polls close, you will still be able to vote.
Most states and Washington, D.C., allow voters to cast ballots in person before Election Day at centralized locations.
In most places this means going to City Hall or a local board of elections, though some larger jurisdictions will arrange for regional early voting centers. The pandemic has prompted the use of even larger early voting locations, with major-league sports franchises opening their vacant arenas and stadiums as polling sites.
Go to the right place
The key difference between in-person early voting and Election Day voting is that where you vote is not necessarily tied to your precise address, but rather what jurisdiction you live in. The N.B.A.’s Atlanta Hawks are opening their State Farm Arena to early voters from Fulton County — Georgia’s largest, but just one of more than a dozen counties that make up metropolitan Atlanta.
Like Election Day voters, in-person early voters will need to bring to the polls whatever identification is required locally.
Lines often fluctuate significantly, depending on how many days of early voting your jurisdiction offers. Expect long lines on the first and last days.
In many states with early voting on Sundays, some churchgoers like to go en masse to vote, often bringing a celebratory atmosphere. It’s unclear how much of this tradition will continue during the pandemic, when churchgoing and festive occasions are limited.
Once you’re at an early voting site, there won’t be much difference between voting early and voting on Election Day. Depending on how busy it is, it may take poll workers slightly longer to check in voters.
Voting in person if you’ve requested an absentee ballot
If you requested an absentee ballot by mail but did not receive it, or if you received an absentee ballot but chose to vote in person anyway, you may face slightly more scrutiny when checking in at a polling place. Poll workers may have to enter data to confirm that you haven’t already submitted an absentee ballot, which could take extra time.
For both in-person early voting and Election Day voting, be sure to check the hours your polling places will be open. Vote.org has links to each state’s websites to find voting hours — for both Election Day and early voting — and locations to do both or request an absentee ballot.
And perhaps it goes without saying, but: If you try to vote early in person but are turned away or discouraged by long lines, you can still vote in person on Election Day.
The lines could well be short if you vote early in person rather than waiting until Election Day. But follow the same precautions as you would on Election Day.
Check to see where and when your early-vote location is open. It may not be the same place where you’re used to voting on Election Day.
Bring whatever you would need to vote at the polls on Election Day.
If there are long lines, you can always come back another day.
Voting by Mail
Think of this as voting from home.
If you’ve always voted in person, this will be a new experience. It may even be easier.
In most states, the first thing to do is to request a ballot that will be mailed to you. The rules differ in each state, but in most places you can apply for a ballot online.
Hurdles vary: In places with photo identification requirements you may have to upload an image of an acceptable ID to your phone or computer, or send a photocopy in with your paper application.
Track your ballot online
Many states, including Wisconsin, allow you to track the status of your ballot request online. You can find out when your request was received, approved and processed, as well as when a ballot was mailed to you. The same websites track when your ballot was received by your local elections administrator. It may not provide the same satisfaction as an “I Voted” sticker, but it is affirmation that your ballot has been received in the right place.
Millions of Americans will automatically receive a ballot this fall. Most voters in about 10 states and Washington, D.C. — about 20 percent of the country — will receive ballots without having to do anything. More than 30 states allow no-excuse absentee voting.
Once you have your ballot, be sure to read the instructions on how to properly mark it. For instance, Georgia requires more of the ovals on its absentee ballots to be filled in than does Colorado for the ballots to count. Don’t check a box if the ballot asks you to fill them in — your vote may not count.
Voters may find the act of filling out a ballot less stressful at home than at a polling place. There’s no line at your dining room table and no concerns about encountering other people during a pandemic. You can also use the internet to research backgrounds and positions of candidates who have received less attention than the people running for president.
Follow the rules for your ballot to count
Be sure to follow the rules about returning your completed ballot. Do the best you can to make sure your signature on the ballot matches (or is at least consistent with) a signature on file with your voter registration. Some states may enforce laws requiring those signatures to match for ballots to be counted.
This is important: Signature matching is crucial in states where it is required. If, like Pennsylvania, your state requires your ballot to be sealed inside a specific envelope, be certain that you do not send the ballot back without it. And if you need a witness to certify that you’ve completed your ballot, don’t return it without a witness signature.
The hard part may be returning your ballot.
There have been a lot of questions about the Postal Service’s ability to handle tens of millions of mail ballots this fall. States have different rules about when ballots must be returned: In some, they must be received by the poll closing time on Election Day to count; in others, an Election Day postmark is sufficient.
The surest way to deliver your absentee ballot is to return it in an authorized drop box maintained by your local elections administrator. In states like Washington and Colorado that have a history of mailing ballots to all voters, this is how the vast majority of ballots are returned.
But not every state has drop boxes, and the ones that do don’t necessarily make them accessible. Ohio’s secretary of state declared that there can be only one per county, a ruling that makes it harder for voters in heavily populated urban counties to return ballots relative to their rural counterparts.
Don’t delay returning your ballot
If you can’t get to a drop box, the best course of action is to put your ballot back in the mail sooner than later. This avoids Postal Service delays and increases the chances that your ballot will arrive where it needs to be before Election Day — avoiding any questions about its postmark.
Most state elections websites will allow you to monitor whether your ballot has been received at your local elections office. If you’ve sent your ballot back in the mail, and you confirm it has not been received and counted, you may be able to vote in person on Election Day. But be sure to first check your local laws on this — voting rules are different in each state, but intentionally trying to vote twice is against the law everywhere.
Don’t delay requesting or returning your absentee ballot.
Find out where your local ballot drop boxes are located and return your ballot there if it is convenient.
Follow the rules on how to properly mark your ballot.
Make sure to sign your ballot, and do so legibly. A lot of ballots aren’t counted because they are unsigned or the signature looks wrong. Don’t forget the proper envelope or a witness signature, where it is necessary.
Be aware of when you need to return your ballot for it to count. In some states ballots must be returned by Election Day; in others they need only be postmarked by Nov. 3.