Editor’s note: On Friday, August 14, the US Postal Service notified states that mailed ballots might not reach voters in time to vote. USPS service may be delayed due to cost-cutting measures, including removing mail sorting machines in battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. US lawmakers may return early from the August recess in hopes of preventing USPS from such operational changes before Election Day. The upshot for voters: Request your ballot early, and return it early.

If concern about how US elections will play out amid COVID-19 outbreaks leaves your stomach in knots, you’re not alone. Elections officials anticipate a surge in absentee ballots—double the number of mail-in ballots cast in 2016—as coronavirus lockdowns continue and voters and poll workers seek to avoid exposure at in-person polling places. Add to the mix sudden cost-cutting at the US Postal Service, and it’s no wonder Pew polling shows that just under half of US voters expect difficulty casting their ballot (normally, fully 85 percent expect voting to be easy). 

There is good news: voters have choices. State and local elections officials across the US have moved quickly to expand early voting and mail-in voting—both measures that keep in-person voters safer by reducing crowds and lines. According to New York Times analysis, a record 76 percent of voters have the option to Vote By Mail in 2020

This is where you come in. We can all do some election prep.

There are 80 days until the US general election on Tuesday, November 3. Every American voter can take steps right away to help ensure it’s a safe, smooth process. Here are seven simple things you can do now to make sure your voice is heard and every vote counts this fall:

1. Register to vote or check that your registration is up-to-date

Don’t let your vote get gummed up because you forgot to register or because your registration has an old address. Go here to register if you aren’t already or to update your registration.

2. Request an absentee ballot

Voting absentee (also known as Vote By Mail or Vote At Home) allows you to vote without risking spreading coronavirus waiting in line at a physical polling site. If you are registered to vote in California, Colorado, DC, Hawai’i, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, or Washington, your ballot will automatically be mailed to you. In 33 other states, you can request an absentee ballot either no-questions-asked or with coronavirus as your reason. You’ll need to fill out an application either online or hard copy and mail it in. If you live in Arizona, California, DC, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey or Nevada you can sign up to permanently vote at home so you don’t have to fill out this application again. In 8 states (Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas), you will need to provide an excuse other than coronavirus to receive an absentee ballot. Each state has an absentee ballot application deadline, but don’t wait. Make your request now. 

Many states offer some form of ballot tracking. A few offer comprehensive tracking that sends you a text notice every step of the way—when your ballot is mailed, when it arrives at your house, when it is received at the elections office and when it is counted. If this is available in your state, sign up for greater peace of mind knowing when your ballot is on its way and that it is counted.

3. Vote early, if you can

As millions of Americans vote by mail for the first time, elections officials are going to be working flat out to verify those ballots by checking signatures and barcodes and then counting all the votes. Help your local election administrator spread the workload by signing your ballot correctly and getting it in early. Once you receive your ballot in the mail, find a time to fill it out, follow the instructions for signing and sealing it, and turn it in. Don’t wait until the last minute and contribute to a crush of work for your election office.

If you prefer to vote in-person and live in one of the 26 states that allow early in-person voting (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, DC, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia), go to the polls early to flatten the ballot curve.

Election Prep Checklist: Take your ballot to a secure dropbox if you can.

4. Drop your ballot in a secure ballot box, if you can

The US Postal Service will be processing an unprecedented number of mailed ballots this year, and while absentee ballots can be returned through the mail, recent cost-cutting measures at the USPS have been causing delivery delays. If your state offers secure drop boxes, drop your ballot in one of those so you know it will arrive on time and to free up postal capacity for those who don’t have access to a drop box.

5. Send your Secretary of State and county election administrator our safe elections guide

You can help your state or county with election prep too. Sightline has compiled best practices and recommendations specific to your state. These include things that your Secretary of State or Elections Division can do to improve access to and security of mailed ballots, as well as nuts and bolts advice for your local election administrator (such as the county clerk). Find your state’s report here and send it to your state and local election administrators

6. Expect that election results may not be final on Election Night and that is totally normal

To be counted, every vote must be cast by Election Day. But that doesn’t mean they will all get counted instantaneously. Mailed ballots go through additional levels of security to ensure they are valid—the voters’ signature gets checked again their other official signatures on record, the barcode on the ballot gets checked to make sure it matches the voter it was sent to so that each registered voter turns in their own ballot with no duplicates. These security measures take time to carry out correctly, so, especially in tight races, results may not be available on Election Night. That’s fine. In fact, it’s a sign that election officials are verifying the election in a methodical and secure manner. 

7. Spread the word

Once you’re all set, help your friends with their election prep. If you live in a state that automatically mails your ballot, tell your friends and family in other states how to request their absentee ballot early. If you voted and are turning your ballot in early, post a picture on social media of yourself getting your ballot into the dropbox and encourage your friends to do the same. If you know someone who will turn 18 before November 3 or who has moved recently, help them register or remind them to update their registration. And remind people in your networks that running a secure election during a global pandemic takes time. We might need to wait for the results, but we can rest assured that is because our hard-working officials are verifying every vote. 

Sightline Institute is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that does not support, endorse, or oppose any candidate or political party. 


August 14, 2020