We have just 38 days until November 3. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic; the US Postal Service, after more than a century of delivering despite snow or rain is suddenly facing unprecedented slow downs and court battles over their priorities; much of the West has been engulfed in fire and smoke for weeks; and the sitting president of the United States has been clear he will not concede the election. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg just passed, leaving questions about the future make-up of the Supreme Court

It’s a lot. 

It’s more than one voter can solve. But every American voter has a role to play to secure this election. Your actions can make a difference in ensuring this election is democratic, runs smoothly, and that Americans can trust its results. Please do these six things. Don’t wait. Start now.

1. Update your voter registration.

Don’t let your vote get gummed up because you forgot to register or because your registration has an old address. Go here to make sure all your information is up-to-date, or to register to vote if you haven’t yet. (See also: Information about registering in-person even after your state’s registration deadline. And: Links to state registration pages, dates, deadlines, and rules).

2. Vote. EARLY! 

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. When you receive it, don’t wait—complete it and return it as soon as you can.

In 33 other states, you can request an absentee ballot either no-questions-asked or with coronavirus as your reason. Don’t miss the deadlinesend in your request now. 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 when you request your ballot you can also request to be added to the permanent absentee list so you don’t have to fill out this application again. In 7 states (Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas), you will need to provide an excuse other than coronavirus to receive an absentee ballot. 

If you feel comfortable voting 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. 

Ballots have already been mailed or early voting has already started in about a dozen states. As of September 24, 2020, more than half a million Americans have already voted

Especially if you are voting absentee for the first time, make sure to fill out your ballot correctly.

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Especially if you are voting absentee for the first time, make sure to fill out your ballot correctly. In fifteen states (Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia) you must put your ballot inside the inner secrecy envelope, then put that inside the outer envelope that you sign and mail. Make sure to sign the outer envelope, but not the inner secrecy envelope. In Alaska, Alabama, Louisiana, and Wisconsin you’ll need to get a witness to sign your envelope, too. In Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, and Oklahoma you’ll need a notary or two witnesses or a copy of your ID.

Stephen Colbert can help you out: check out his instructions, links, and video for your state here. (See also, Vote.org’s early voting calendar for all states).

3. 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. (Though a federal judge recently ordered USPS to reverse cost-cutting measures and prioritize delivering election mail on time.) 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. 

At least 34 states will offer secure drop boxes in one or more counties or cities for the 2020 presidential election, including: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, DC, Florida, Georgia, Hawai’i, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin

Ballots have already been mailed or early voting has already started in about a dozen states. As of September 24, 2020, more than half a million Americans have already voted.

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4. Track your ballot and fix any problems.

Almost every state gives you the opportunity to track your absentee ballot. Five states (California, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia) plus some counties in a dozen other states (Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington) let you track your ballot like a package, getting text updates about its progress towards your house and back to the elections office. If your state or county offers this service, sign up and know exactly where your ballot is! 

Most states have a state portal where you can sign in and see whether your ballot has been accepted and counted. Check here to make sure your vote made it in and was counted. 

  • Our work is made possible by the generosity of people like you!

    Thanks to Marjorie A Kircher and Mitchell G Gilbert, Jr. for supporting a sustainable Northwest.

  • In most states only a few percent of voters made a mistake on their mailed ballot, such as you signed in the wrong place or forgot to get a witness. But in some states it can be more like 6 percent, and in at least three states (Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina) we’ve seen that ballots from Black voters are flagged more often than those from white voters. If there is a problem with your mailed ballot the tracking service may alert you and in 27 states, election officials will contact you by mail, or in some cases by email. If you get such a notice, respond immediately to make sure your vote is counted!

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

    To be counted, every vote must be cast (or postmarked) 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 against 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 a sign that election officials are verifying the election in a methodical and secure manner. 

    Most swing states are reasonably well prepared to handle a spike in absentee ballots, but it will take them anywhere from a few days to more than a week to count enough votes to call the election. 

    6. Spread the word!

    Tell your friends and family how they can help secure this election too.

    Remind folks in your networks to update their registration and request their ballot, now. 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. If you already voted early, post a picture on social media of yourself getting your ballot into the dropbox and encourage your friends to do the same. And be sure to 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 and does not support, endorse, or oppose any candidate or political party.

    Kristin Eberhard, Director, Climate and Democracy, is a researcher, writer, speaker, lawyer, and policy analyst who spearheads Sightline Institute’s work on democracy reform and on climate action. She researches, writes about, and speaks about elections systems and democracy reform, with particular expertise on Vote By Mail and proportional representation. Eberhard lives in Oregon, an all-Vote By Mail state. She is available to discuss tested, safe, fair COVID-19 election practices, state by state. Find all Eberhard’s latest research here.

    For interviews, speaking engagements, and media inquiries, contact Anna Fahey.