Illustration of several I Voted stickers with an American flag on a green background

With the presidential election just weeks away, you may feel that a cloud of uncertainty still hovers over the voting process. 

That’s understandable. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, plus the unusually high level of interest in this year’s election, has put a lot of pressure on our electoral system. Mail-in voting and early in-person voting will play a much larger role than ever before, and local election officials around the country are, in some cases, still ironing out the details necessary to make that possible. Meanwhile, politically tinged talk of voter suppression and election fraud abounds, and recent slowdowns at the U.S. Postal Service has many worried that their ballots won’t arrive on time.  

But here’s the good news: By and large, experts say, those details are being ironed out; large-scale election fraud is extremely unlikely, if not impossible; and, most importantly, there are simple steps you can take to both stay safe and be certain your vote is counted. 

More on Keeping Safe During the Pandemic

This article will help you take those steps, whether you ultimately decide to vote by mail (aka absentee voting), vote early in person, or vote on Election Day in person. 

The key is to get started now. “Do not let the political winds drive you to vote in a way that’s not your first choice,” says David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. “But to vote the way you want, you will need to plan ahead.” 

Here’s what you need to know, and the steps you should take.

Check Your Voter Registration Status

You’ve probably heard it a million times: “Register to vote.” And you probably ignored it almost as often, either because you assume you’re already registered or because you’ve never had any trouble voting in the past. 

But things may end up being different this year. Some states have purged voter rolls, and many of the ways that voters ordinarily register aren’t available because of the COVID-19 crisis. “Department of Motor Vehicle closures, limited in-person interactions, and a halt to large public gatherings have curbed traditional sources of registration, such as motor voter and get-out-the-vote registration drives,” says a study by the Center for Election Innovation & Research.

It’s also especially crucial this election cycle that local election officials have your current address on hand, whether you vote by mail or in person. 

Voting by mail requires that your ballot get to you in a timely manner, and voting in person means local election officials will need to get you up-to-date information on polling locations and early voting schedules. Both are in flux because traditional places such as nursing homes and schools may be deemed off-limits for safety reasons. And in most states, you must vote in the right location for your vote to count. 

In addition, retirees traditionally fill a disproportionate number of election-day staffing roles, and because they’re in a high-risk category many are understandably reluctant to sign up this year. Election officials nationwide are having a difficult time filling the ranks, and some may be forced to combine multiple polling places or find new locations altogether. 

Checking and updating your voter registration status is very easy by going to the Can I Vote? page of the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) website. This is the best single source of links to state-by-state voter registration tools and information, so keep it handy. (It’s also the first thing that comes up if you type “Can I Vote?” into the Google search engine.) Click on “Register to Vote” or “Voter Registration Status,” choose your state from the pull-down menu, and follow the instructions.  

The U.S. Vote Foundation is another good source.  

Mail-In or Absentee Voting

Mail-in voting is, by its nature, the surest way to avoid long lines and minimize potential exposure to the coronavirus. 

That’s why Michael McDonald, PhD, a University of Florida political science professor who runs the United States Elections Project, estimates that at least 50 percent of the votes cast in November will be by mail-in ballot. 

The rules and restrictions for mail-in voting vary by state—but, Becker says, “there is no state where you can’t vote by mail.” 

Nine states—California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, New Jersey, Utah, Vermont, and Washington—plus the District of Columbia are sending a mail-in ballot to every registered voter (though residents are still allowed to vote in person if they choose). 

In 35 or so states, any registered voter can get a mail-in ballot on request. (In some of those states, you need to provide a reason or an excuse to get a mail-in ballot, and fear of COVID-19 is considered a legitimate justification.) 

And six states—Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas—require a justification for mail-in voting and will not accept fear of COVID-19 as adequate. Illness or travel plans are generally a valid excuse, but you can check this table, maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures, for the rules in your state. Note that in a handful of states, applications for mail-in ballots must be notarized or signed by witnesses. 

To find out the rules and restrictions in your state or locality and to request a mail-in ballot, go to the absentee and early voting page link at the NASS website’s Can I Vote? page and use the pull-down menu to select your state. 

Is Voting by Mail Secure?

Some people, including President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr, have argued against mail-in voting, suggesting that it enables large-scale election fraud. But voting experts consistently dispute that. “Voter fraud has been analyzed extensively, and there is zero evidence of extensive election fraud,” Becker says, pointing to definitive work by the Brennan Center for Justice showing that mail-ballot fraud is “incredibly rare” and rates of it “infinitesimally small.” 

Ben Hovland, the Trump-nominated head of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, agrees that the incidence of voter fraud in general is “historically rare” because “there are just so many safeguards in place.” 

Experts say that systematic tampering with mail-in voting is almost impossible, given all the overlapping security measures built into the system. They include bar-coded or numbered ballots that need to match with unique identifiers that only an individual voter is likely to have (like your signature and the last digits of your Social Security number), ballot tracking through the U.S. Postal Service and local election portals, and post-election auditing processes.  

A slightly more legitimate worry is that mail-in votes won’t be counted. To the extent this is a valid concern, it has nothing to do with fraud but with the fact that mail-in voting requires voters to meet specific deadlines and follow detailed rules—and many fail to do so. 

A recent analysis by The Associated Press, for example, found that more than 100,000 mail-in ballots were rejected by California election officials during the March presidential primary. About 70,000 were rejected because they had not been postmarked on or before Election Day and received within three days afterward, as state election rules require, and more than 27,000 because the ballots weren’t signed or the signature didn’t match the one on record. 

Another potential problem is that some states won’t be prepared to accommodate all the requests they get for mail-in ballots. This happened in Wisconsin’s April primary, for example, when technical problems prevented thousands of requested ballots from reaching voters, according to a report by the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

That said, voters can take simple steps to address all the valid concerns about mail-in voting. 

Pay attention to deadlines. That applies for requesting a mail-in ballot and for returning it. (Note that some deadlines specify when a ballot must be postmarked, others when it must be received by election officials.) You can find those deadlines using the same NASS Can I Vote? page recommended above.

If you’re concerned that you’ve waited too long to send your ballot or that the Postal Service won’t deliver your marked ballot in time, know that most voting districts allow people to deliver their own mail-in ballots to dedicated drop-off bins (often in libraries, post offices, and other public facilities) and polling stations on Election Day. 

Read and follow mail-in ballot instructions carefully. They often require close attention to detail. They almost always require your signature and sometimes more than one. Some ballots must be placed inside a dedicated security envelope, which in turn goes inside a mailing envelope. “And the ballot itself needs to be marked correctly,” Becker says. That means filling in the “bubbles” completely with blue or black ink. X’s, check marks, and red-ink-filled bubbles generally won’t be counted. 

Have a backup plan. In the Wisconsin primary election last April, about half of the people who didn’t get the mail-in ballot they requested eventually voted, either with replacement absentee ballots or at the polls, according to the state election commission study. If your ballot hasn’t arrived and the mail-in deadlines are approaching—Becker suggests no later than a week before the election—check with local officials and be ready to put your fall-back plan into action. In many jurisdictions you’ll be able to request a replacement ballot or vote early in person. As a last resort you can go to the polls on Election Day and vote in person even if you requested a mail-in ballot, though you may need to use a provisional ballot to do so.  

And last, know that in many states you can check that your mail-in ballot was received and processed. California’s Where’s My Ballot? service, for example, notifies voters via email, text, or phone call.  

Early In-Person Voting

Early voting, now available in about 40 states, is an increasingly popular option. More than 16 million Americans cast early ballots in the 2018 midterm elections, not counting mail-in ballots, according to data collected by the United States Elections Project. 

And because early voting spreads voters across a longer period of time, it’s usually an effective way for them to avoid the crowds and long lines at polling stations on Election Day and thereby decrease their risk of contracting COVID-19—assuming they take reasonable health and safety precautions (more on that below).  

The time frame for early voting varies by state, ranging from the week before to about 45 days before the election. Early voting typically ends a few days before Election Day. About half the states allow early voting on weekends. 

You can check your own state’s early voting rules using this table maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures, or through the NASS Can I Vote? page.

Voting on Election Day

If you vote this way, you could face lines made longer because of social distancing and in some cases by reduced polling locations and staff shortages. 

If you have no other choice, though, at least try to show up during off-peak times. The middle of the day tends to be best, Becker says. Definitely avoid the end-of-the-day rush if you can.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued special COVID-19 safety recommendations for voters, many of which are similar to the healthy behaviors you should practice during a trip to the supermarket: wear a mask; maintain at least 6 feet of social distance; cover your coughs and sneezes; use hand sanitizer often, especially after touching frequently touched surfaces (such as doorknobs and voting machines); avoid touching your face; and wash your hands thoroughly afterward. 

But the CDC has a few special voting-day recommendations. Avoid delays by verifying your voter info and having any necessary registration forms ready; bring your own black pen (or if your precinct uses electronic voting machines, a stylus), so you don’t have to use one that has been touched by other voters; and review a sample ballot in advance (which you can do here or through your local election office’s website), so you can vote and depart quickly.