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

Concerned about voting in this fall’s elections? That’s understandable. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, combined with the unusually high level of voter participation widely expected in November, will put extraordinary pressure on our electoral system.  

But rest assured: You can stay safe and be certain your vote is counted. You simply need to plan, and this article will help you do that whether you choose to vote by mail (aka absentee voting), vote early in person, or vote on Election Day in person. 

More on Keeping Safe During the Pandemic

“We need to make plans for things we used to not think about before,” says David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. “In that sense, voting during the COVID era is like going to the supermarket.” 

What’s more, thinking ahead about November’s elections can have a beneficial effect: The more people who do so, experts say, the more smoothly the election is likely to go. 

Here’s what you need to understand about your voting options and concerns, and what you need to do:

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 be 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 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 and 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 like 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 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, a University of Florida political science professor who runs the U.S. 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.” 

Five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—conduct what are known as “all-mail elections,” in which every registered voter is sent a mail-in ballot for every election (though residents are still allowed to vote in person if they choose). 

In addition, the California legislature recently decided to send mail-in ballots for the November elections to all registered voters. And other states may join the all-mail ranks by November. 

Another 30 or so are so-called “no excuse” states, where you can get a mail-in ballot upon request and don’t need to provide a reason or excuse (such as illness or travel plans). Seven of those states let you request a mail-in ballot just once in order to be sent ballots for all future elections; in the others, you have to request a mail-in ballot for each election. 

Finally, there are 15 states or so that require a valid excuse to get a mail-in ballot, though seven of them have waived that requirement for the November elections for people over the age of 60 or 65 because of the COVID risk. For the remaining group, illness or travel plans are generally an adequate 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,” says Becker, 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 note 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 of 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 of 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 located 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,” says Becker. That means filling in the “bubbles” completely with blue or black ink; Xs, 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 U.S. 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—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, says Becker. 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’s 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.