Vote by Mail: What You Need to Know to Vote Safely in the 2020 Elections

The COVID-19 pandemic is posing unprecedented challenges for the 2020 elections. Find out how to vote by mail and cast your ballot safely and successfully this year.
A worker wearing a protective mask places ballots into mail bins at the Runbeck Election Services facility in Phoenix, June 23, 2020.

Caitlin O'Hara/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For decades, more and more voters have been casting their ballots by mail. And in this year’s general election, as voters and poll workers voice their concerns about the potential health risks of gathering at crowded indoor locations, accommodating voting by mail will be even more important.

Many states have already expanded access to mail-in voting in the past few months, partly in recognition of recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most Americans may heed that advice: A recent poll found that a majority of voters support mail-in ballots for the November election, especially as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in states across the nation. This could mean a surge in absentee ballot requests, underscoring the need for voters to request their mail-in ballots as soon as possible to avoid issues such as rejected ballots due to mail delays, as experienced in recent primaries.

To help prepare for this shift to mail-in ballots, the nonpartisan resource center We Can Vote recently released state-by-state healthy voting guides informed by both public health experts and election administrators at HealthyVoting.org. “Voting by mail is a safe and incredibly secure way to vote,” says Jessica Barba Brown, We Can Vote’s senior advisor. “Voting by mail is literally a paper trail. It’s just important that voters check their state’s rules, requesting their mail-in ballots early and following the guidelines, to be assured that their votes get counted.”

Here are the steps to take to vote by mail or absentee ballot in the 2020 elections.

Register to vote (if you haven’t already done so).

Visit vote.gov or use our tool to register to vote or to confirm your registration. Depending on your state, the registration deadline could be as much as 30 days before the election. Many states don’t require you to be registered first to apply for an absentee ballot, but it makes the process easier.

Check your state’s rules and deadlines.

States are making it easier for voters to cast their ballot by mail this year, but it’s still important to check your state’s election guidelines as rules vary for mail-in voting—and many states are continuing to update their policies. ”Things are changing even in the period after states held their primaries and before the general election, so the way you voted in the primary may be different from the way you’ll vote in November,” Brown says. Visit HealthyVoting.org for up-to-date information and note these two basic systems already in place:

  • Universal Vote-by-Mail
    Five states currently have a universal vote-by-mail system. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington send all registered voters a ballot well ahead of Election Day. California and Vermont also recently passed measures to ensure every voter gets a vote-by-mail ballot, whether they apply for one or not. Voters from these states, however, can still choose to cast a ballot at an in-person vote center during the early voting period or on Election Day.
  • Absentee Voting
    All other states offer mail-in absentee voting, which requires registered voters to request an absentee ballot. Two-thirds of states do not require an excuse to vote absentee, while the other one-third require an approved excuse. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, some of these states have added coronavirus precaution as an approved excuse to vote by mail or they have switched to become “no excuse required” states. Some states also have a permanent absentee ballot list—voters who ask to be added to the list will automatically receive an absentee ballot for all future elections.

Request an absentee ballot as soon as possible.

Be forewarned: Election administrators are expecting a surge in absentee ballot applications this fall. “We're encouraging people to request their ballots as early as possible this year because we don't want the postal system to be overloaded,” says Brown. It’s important to remember that absentee ballot applications must be received by the deadline, not just postmarked by the deadline.

Visit your state election or secretary of state’s websites or use our tool to request your absentee ballot. Some states allow voters to request their absentee ballot online and some offer downloadable PDF forms while others link to a third-party site that provides the service.

And again, it’s crucial that you check deadlines for absentee ballot applications. Some states require that applications be received weeks in advance of the election, according to Brown. Visit HealthyVoting.org or your state’s election website to check your state’s deadlines.

Vote (and don’t forget to sign the envelope).

Once you receive your absentee ballot, check that everything is printed correctly (if there are issues with your ballot or if it is damaged, contact your state’s election office to request a replacement. Some states may request you return the original absentee ballot first). Read the instructions, mark your ballot with a blue- or black-ink pen, refold it, place it into the return envelope, sign the declaration or oath on the envelope carefully and legibly, and seal.

Some states, such as North Carolina and Wisconsin, require a witness signature or notary for absentee ballots, but, due to the pandemic, some may modify or waive that requirement this year. South Carolina, for example, usually requires absentee voters get a witness or notary to sign their ballots, but in June, a federal judge ruled that the requirement could put voters' health at risk and suspended it for the state’s primary that month.

If you still need a witness or notary to vote by mail in your state, wear a mask or face covering and practice physical distancing by stepping in and stepping back during your interaction. Visit your state’s election or secretary of state’s websites to find out about special options for virtual witness or notary services and for any other updated requirements.

Turn in your absentee ballot carefully and on time.

In most states, postage is covered to make mailing back your completed absentee ballot easy. Most also require that your ballot be postmarked on or before Election Day. But if you choose instead to return your ballot at a mailbox or official drop box (often located at a library, school, or vote center), be safe. Practice physical distancing, wear a mask, and wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after you drop off your ballot.

Track your vote-by-mail ballot.

Checking in on the status of your absentee ballot has grown easier in places where ballot tracking systems are in place. “Some states have created online tools that allow voters to track their vote-by-mail ballot through the system and process,” says Brown.

California, for example, offers a Where’s My Ballot? tracker that allows voters to track and receive notifications on the status of their vote-by-mail ballot, including when it is mailed, received, and counted. Arizona, Massachusetts, and Michigan also offer ballot-by-mail status trackers.

Changed your mind and want to vote in person instead?

If you haven’t returned your absentee ballot, you can still vote in person; just make sure you know the location of your polling station. Bring a photo ID (if your state requires it) and the absentee ballot with you if you can, as it may help the streamline the process for election administrators.

Both the CDC and Brown also recommend early voting, where possible, to avoid crowds. This early voting chart lists time frames for states that offer this service. Consider voting at off-peak times, such as midmorning or early afternoon—and don’t forget to practice physical distancing, cover your face, and clean your hands before and after voting, to keep everyone safe.



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