With Election Day just over a month away, many first-time voters are gearing up to cast their ballots during an election which looks markedly different than years past, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Whether you're planning to vote by mail or in person, there are a few steps you need to check off before you send in your ballot. From how to register to researching your candidates, here's a guide to your first time voting that'll help you navigate casting your ballot.
When it comes to choosing to vote early, either in-person or by mail, your options will depend on where you live. A number of states have changed their absentee voting policies to expand who can vote by mail, and a handful of states even practice mail-in only voting, which means all registered voters in those states will automatically be sent a mail-in ballot, which they can return before Election Day. However, before you get to deciding how you'll vote this year, there are a few things you need to do first:
1. Register To Vote
Before you do anything else, you'll need to register to vote. To register to vote for the first time, you'll first need to check whether your state offers the option to register to vote online. As of September 2020, 40 states and Washington, D.C. offer online registration. To sign up, head to either your state's Secretary of State website or a portal like Vote.org to get the process started online. Registration requirements will vary by state, but you’ll need a form of state identification and proof of residency. Montana, Texas, Wyoming, South Dakota, Arkansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and Maine don't currently have an online voter registration portal, so you'll have to register in-person at your Secretary of State's office or by mail. (North Dakota doesn’t have a voter registration process. Instead, all voters must bring a valid ID and proof of residency to the polls.)
To register by mail, you can print out a voter registration form from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, fill it out with all necessary information required by your state, then mail it to your state or local election office.
According to the National Conference of State Legislature (NCSL), 20 states and Washington, D.C. offer same-day voter registration, which is when you register to vote in-person on the same day you cast your ballot, and it’s usually available through Election Day. Eligibility requirements for same-day registration will vary by state, so make sure to check your state's rules. Keep in mind the deadlines fore voter registration vary by state, and by which method you plan to use. Some of the earliest states' voter registration deadlines are as soon as Oct. 3, so check your local deadline, and get registered as soon as possible.
Even if you think you're registered, it’s never a bad idea to double check your voter registration status. You can head to the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) website to be redirected to your state’s voter registration status page, and make sure your voter status is up to date.
2. Find Your Polling Place & Check Hours
If you’re planning to vote in person this year, you'll want to find your polling place in advance using a website like Vote.org or your Secretary of State's office. Depending on where you live, you might want to map out your public transportation route or take advantage of discounted rides to polling places on Election Day with services like Lyft and Uber. Check your polling place's hours, and, if possible and necessary, request time off work on Nov. 3. (Most, but not all, states allow you to take time away to vote.) You can also check to see if your state offers early voting, which will give you a much wider window of time to drop off a mail-in ballot or vote in person before Election Day.
If you’re planning to request a mail-in ballot and drop it off in person, a reminder that your drop-off location may not be the same as your in-person polling place.
3. Research Your Candidates
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden both have campaign websites you can visit to compare their stances on issues like health care, foreign policy, and the handling of the coronavirus, or you can head to a website like OnTheIssues or Ballotpedia to search the views of each candidate on every subject. You can also watch Trump and Biden debate their viewpoints by tuning into the presidential debates on Sept. 29, Oct. 15, and Oct. 22. Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) will face off in the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7.
Keep in mind that down-ballot races, which are races determining leadership at a statewide and community level, are also important. To research candidates running for the House and Senate and other local elections, you can head to a website like OnTheIssues to check out different politicians’ voting records or head to the website of your Secretary of State’s office or State’s Board of Elections.
4. Cast Your Ballot (By Mail or In Person)
Once you've registered to vote and have made your decisions on who you'll vote for, you'll need to decide if you're voting in person or by mail. If you live in California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Washington D.C., you'll automatically be sent a mail-in ballot to the address you used when registering to vote, which you can fill out and send in before your state's deadline. Keep in mind it's likely to be quite a bit earlier than Nov. 3 to account for mailing time. You can either mail back your completed ballot or drop it at a secure dropbox location. The USPS suggests voters send in their applications for a ballot no later than one week before their state's deadline (but it’s best to do it as soon as possible).
For the states that don’t practice mail-in voting only, you’ll have to request an absentee ballot. If you live in Delaware, Connecticut, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, or Massachusetts, you'll automatically be sent an application for an absentee ballot to the address you used when you registered to vote. In this case, USPS recommends requesting your ballot at least 15 days prior. If you want to speed up the process, you can check to see if you live in a state where you can directly request your absentee ballot online.
If you live in a state that doesn’t automatically send out mail-in ballots or absentee ballot applications, you’ll have to request an absentee ballot. You can visit your state’s Secretary of State website for more information or go to a voter resource page like Vote.org to get the process started. You can check to see if you live in a state that offers no excuse-required absentee voting, or if you’ll have to provide additional documentation to obtain your absentee ballot.
Once you've requested your ballot, you can check to see when yours will arrive here. If you're a resident of one of the 39 states which offer electronic tracking, you can also check the status of your mail-in ballot online. Before sending it in, you’ll want to check your state’s “receive by” absentee ballot deadline to make sure your ballot gets in on time. You can either mail in your absentee ballot or drop it off early in-person at your polling place. The USPS recommends voters send in their ballots at least one week before the deadline due to an expected influx of mail-in ballots. So, you’ll want to have it in the mail by at least Tuesday, Oct. 27, but getting it in earlier than this is a good idea.
When voting in person, observe the social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as of June 22, which call for wearing some type of face covering, staying at least six feet away from others when possible, and sanitizing or washing your hands before and after touching voting equipment. In addition, try to avoid crowds by going during off-peak times when possible, fill out all necessary registration forms beforehand, and bring your own black ink pen.
5. Know Your Rights
Whether you plan to vote by mail or in person, you have rights as a voter, including the right to an accessible polling place, the right to language assistance if you’re not comfortable in English, and the right to a provisional ballot if there’s a problem finding you in the list of registered voters. The ACLU has a list of important rights to know about when casting your ballot, so it’s a good idea to brush up before you head off to exercise your civic rights.
One important one to keep in mind? If you’re in line to vote when the polls close, you still have the right to cast your ballot. Given the reported multi-hour waits during the primaries earlier this year, you may be waiting longer than expected, so don’t leave.
If you think your rights are being violated, or you aren’t sure what to do in a given situation, the ACLU’s Election Protection hotline is available at 1-866-OUR-VOTE / 1-866-687-8683 for English speakers, and more languages are available at other numbers. (You can find a full list of hotlines by language here).
There’s a lot to consider as you prepare to vote for the first time, so it’s a good idea to make a plan to ensure you complete all the necessary requirements to make your vote count in the 2020 presidential election.
Your voice matters. So does your vote. Make sure both are heard and counted in the 2020 election by registering to vote right now.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.