Election Day 2020: Everything You Need to Get Out and Vote
Make sure your voice and vote are heard and counted on November 3.
Every election raises its own set of questions and uncertainties. (Hanging chads, anyone?) This year, amid normal concerns about voter turnout and contentious mudslinging, we’re also dealing with a pandemic and political upheaval that could affect how, when, and where you vote. Still, just like Americans have done every four years since 1848, we’ll hold a federal election on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
Here’s what you need to know to be an informed citizen and participate in this year’s general election.
Who can vote?
This year marks the 100th anniversary of women having the right to vote. Check out these 13 rarely seen photos of the first women voters in 1920.
Today, any U.S. citizen, whether naturalized or born here, is eligible to vote as long as they are 18 or older on Election Day, and meet their state’s residency requirements. Even if you’re experiencing homelessness, you still have the right to vote. Legally, you may list a shelter, a park, or wherever you most frequently sleep as your address, though Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, recommends using a location where you can actually receive election-related mail like a voter card, ballot or election guide.
In some states, people with felony convictions are not eligible to vote; likewise, people with certain mental health conditions are restricted from voting, depending on individual state law. Find out the bizarre things the government actually has the power to do.
You can’t vote unless you’re preregistered
Every state except North Dakota requires citizens to register to vote. Deadlines vary by state. In some instances it can be as little as a week before the election; in others, you need to do it 30 days beforehand. Be sure to look up info on your own state’s deadlines below.
If you’ve moved since the last election, you’ll need to register in your new hometown. Even if you haven’t moved and you’re positive you’re registered, double- and triple-check, right up until the day before the election. People who’ve been registered have found themselves purged from the polls if they haven’t voted in recent elections, or through sheer mistakes. If there has been a mistake, it’s easier to correct now than on Election Day.
In 19 states plus the District of Columbia, registration is automatic. When you get or renew your driver’s license (or in a few cases, interact with other government agencies), you’re registered to vote, thanks to a 1993 “motor-voter” law.
Voting by mail
In many states, it might feel more like we now have Election Season instead of Election Day. The number of states permitting absentee or mail-in ballots has expanded since 2016, most recently due to concerns about the safety of in-person voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Nine states plus the District of Columbia plan to mail ballots to most registered voters automatically this year. Another 35 states allow voters to request one.
However, the deadlines for requesting mail-in ballots vary by state. You can find the deadline for your state below. Experts advise completing and returning your ballot as quickly as possible. With slowdowns in the U.S. Postal Service a looming possibility, it’s best not to take any chances. A report by The New York Times concluded that if voters wait until the last allowable minute to request a mail-in ballot, only voters in six states will be able to return it on time through the mail. A mail carrier for 24 years shares the truth about ballot safety.
Many states allow voters to “cure” or fix ballots that have a mistake, such as having used the wrong color ink or forgetting to sign the envelope containing their ballot. If you get your ballot in early enough, election officials will have time to contact you to make sure your vote counts.
While mail-in ballots are getting lots of attention this year, they’re not a new phenomenon. Members of the U.S. military and other Americans living overseas have been using them for decades. (Speaking of which, those groups will have to request ballots too; visit the Federal Voting Assistance Program or Vote From Abroad websites for information or to request your ballot.)
Voting in person
If you want or need to vote in person, it’s imperative to know beforehand where your polling place is. Election officials are warning that the number of polling places may be reduced and your polling site may be different than in previous years. You’ll also want to find out if your state permits early voting in person.
Be aware that if you vote in person on Election Day, lines may be long, and in order for your vote to be counted, you must be in line by a certain time; check with your state election board to find out when the polls close at your site.
It’s helpful to make a plan in advance so you’ll know how and when you’re going to get to your polling site, and arrange for child or elder care, if necessary. You can also find out if you’ll need ID or any other materials to vote in person. And to keep everyone safe, it’s probably a good idea to bring a spare mask and hand sanitizer.
Voters requiring extra help
If you have a disability, you have the right to an accessible polling place and may request assistance from either someone who accompanies you or a poll worker. Likewise, if you don’t speak English well, you have the right to use an interpreter of your choosing (except not your boss or union rep).
If you have any trouble casting your vote on Election Day for any reason—for example, the machines are down, or your name is not on the list of registered voters—you can call the nonpartisan Election Protection Hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE. Find out 15 interesting facts and figures about the Constitution.
Know who and what you’re voting for
Even though the presidential election snares all the headlines, the general election is a referendum on candidates for many positions, from senators to sheriffs. Most ballots also include city, county, and state measures.
A variety of nonpartisan websites like Rock The Vote, USA.gov, Vote Smart, and Voterly provide information on candidates’ positions and voting records, as well as a variety of other ballot issues, based on a user’s ZIP code.
If you’re nervous about making mistakes on your real ballot, most states allow you to request a sample ballot in advance so you can practice filling it out. It will also help you see all the candidates and issues that you’ll be voting for later, and can serve as a guide when you begin to research them. You’ll need to contact your state or county election board to request it.
You don’t have to vote for everything on the ballot for your vote to count. But the more you can learn about the issues and participate in as many electoral decisions as possible, the stronger our democracy will be.
Next, find out the answers to the 15 political questions you’re too embarrassed to ask.
- USA.gov: Who Can and Can’t Vote in U.S. Elections
- Vote.org: Voter Registration Deadlines
- Vote.org: Absentee Ballot Deadlines
- The New York Times: “Will You Have Enough Time to Vote by Mail in Your State?”
- National Conference of State Legislatures: “Voter Identification Requirements”