6 Ways To Make (Extra) Sure Your Mail-In Ballot Counts This Election

published Oct 20, 2020
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Credit: Minette Hand

As if 2020 hasn’t been complicated enough, you might also be stressing about trying to safely vote in a presidential election during a pandemic. Luckily, voting by mail is an option in most states, and it’s one with history: The practice of large-scale absentee voting dates back to the Civil War.

While tens of millions of Americans are expected to take advantage of voting by mail this year, it’s a new experience for a lot of people, and you might be worried about messing up without a poll worker to guide you through proper protocols. (This year alone, over half a million ballots were disqualified in primary elections due to factors like mismatched signatures and missed postmark deadlines, according to an NPR analysis.) 

If you don’t want to brave the lines and cast your vote at in-person polls, here are important steps to take to ensure your ballot is postmarked in time and filled out properly. And be sure to check your own state’s requirements for any specific details, deadlines, and regulations. 

Actually request an absentee ballot if necessary

Some states offer all-mail voting every election, while others are issuing absentee ballots automatically to voters just for this oh-so-unique election. But in most states, you have to request a mail-in ballot.

While some states will send you a ballot without requiring that you provide a reason, voters who live in Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas need to offer an excuse beyond the coronavirus in order to vote by mail. To apply for your state’s absentee ballot, check your absentee voter registration status, or just to find out more info, go to the National Association of Secretaries of State’s Can I Vote page and choose your state from the dropdown menu.

Know voting deadlines

Mail-in voting means keeping track of various deadlines besides remembering that Election Day is November 3. In New York, for example, absentee ballots need to be requested by October 27 and returned by November 3. To check relevant dates where you live, go to U.S. Vote Foundation’s tracker, which also includes military and overseas deadlines.

Fill out your ballot carefully

Read and follow the specific instructions on your ballot—for example, note if you’re only permitted to fill in those little ovals using black or blue ink. Don’t forget to sign your ballot with your name everywhere you are asked to, as well—including any affidavits on the outside of the envelope. And now is not the time to try out a fancy new signature; the signature on your ballot should match the one on your driver’s license or any other document the state could use to verify your handwriting.

Double-check if you need to include any additional proof that you’re, well, you

Some states require that a photocopy of the voter’s ID be included with applications or even absentee ballots, or that a ballot be notarized or signed before a witness. You may also be required to include proof of ID if it’s your first time voting. Some states have stricter voter ID laws than others, so it’s important to look up what laws and regulations apply to your vote. If getting a photocopy of your ID is a hardship, the organization Vote Riders will send you two copies for free that you can include with your ballot.

Make sure your envelope arrives

With several states offering to cover the postage costs of voter ballots, it can be easy to forget that in most places you still need to put stamps on your ballot before mailing it off. How many stamps depends on your state’s postage requirements. According to the U.S. Postal Service, “the Postal Service requires election officials to inform voters of the amount of First-Class postage required to return their ballots.” Postage information should be available on your state’s election website. (And a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service told USA Today that the service’s policy is to deliver ballots even if they lack postage.)

Of course, even if you’re trying to avoid the lines typically encountered on Election Day, delivering your ballot in-person can offer a certain peace of mind. Vote.org’s polling place finder can help you identify some places where you can take your ballot, and Google recently launched a widget to help voters identify polling places and ballot drop box locations. And triple-verify any unmanned drop boxes in your area, even if a sign says it’s for ballot collection. Just this week, the California Republican Party admitted responsibility for placing 50 misleading metal boxes around the state with signs reading “Official Ballot Drop off Box” or “Ballot Drop Box,” drawing ire from the state’s attorney general Xavier Becerra, who referred to the boxes as “fake” in The New York Times.

Track your ballot

Postal service slowdowns and widespread voting by mail could create a perfect storm this year, so it’s natural to be nervous about whether your ballot will reach its final destination. Luckily, many states are offering ways to track your ballot online. Go to your state’s or local elections’ website to find out whether ballot tracking is available to you.