By Meera Jagannathan
Amid a pandemic that has made indoor crowds unsavory, many voters are seeking alternatives to casting their ballots at polling places on Election Day, and several states have expanded opportunities to vote by mail.
About half of registered voters plan to cast their ballots early — 30% by mail and 20% through in-person early voting — while 43% say they’ll vote in person on Nov. 3, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll .
Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s backers are far more likely than President Trump’s supporters to report a vote-by-mail preference, the survey found, as well as more likely to express confidence that the election results will be counted accurately.
Trump has sought to cast doubt on the validity of the upcoming election , claiming without specific evidence there is fraud in mail-in voting. Trump said at the first presidential debate that he was “counting” on the Supreme Court to “look at the ballots.” Biden said Trump is “just afraid of counting the votes.” Experts have said fraudulent ballots are rare.
In August, postmaster general and Trump ally Louis DeJoy defended his move to institute cost-cutting measures within the U.S. Postal Service that resulted in delays. DeJoy then said he would suspend his operational changes until after the election’s conclusion “to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail,” though Democrats still had plenty of questions for him in contentious hearings on Capitol Hill.
Wary about voting by mail? Wondering how difficult it might be to vote in person? Here are answers to some of the questions you might have, according to voter-engagement advocates and experts.
The decision will depend on your own personal circumstances and the voting options available in your state, said Jeanette Senecal, the senior director of mission impact for the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group that encourages voter participation.
Most states currently offer any eligible voter the opportunity to vote by mail, including a handful of states now allowing voters to use COVID-19 as an excuse. But their exact processes — that is, whether voters are automatically mailed ballots, automatically mailed applications for mail-in ballots, or must obtain the application themselves — vary widely , as do their deadlines. And in six states, voters seeking to cast an absentee ballot must still furnish a non-COVID-19-related excuse.
If voting by mail isn’t a possibility for you, see if your state allows you to vote early in person . Otherwise, head to the polls on Election Day, equipped with a mask and ready to exercise whatever precautions your community requires to prevent the spread of COVID-19, said Brian Miller, the executive director of Nonprofit VOTE, a nonpartisan group that partners with nonprofits to boost voter participation.
“People should vote in whatever way feels most comfortable to them,” Vincent Hutchings, a University of Michigan political scientist, told MarketWatch in an email. “My polling place is not typically very crowded, so I have voted in person recently. However, for others (particular those with preexisting conditions) it may make sense to vote by mail.”
Whatever voting option you choose, experts say, it’s crucial to plan ahead and begin the process as early as possible. Make sure you’re registered to vote at your current address well in advance of the election, particularly if your address has changed recently, Miller said.
“If you think that you’re probably going to vote by mail, request your application early. Send it back early. Call early to see if they received it,” said Myrna Pérez, the director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s voting rights and elections program. “To the extent to which your state allows early voting, take advantage of it. If it doesn’t allow early voting, get there as early in the day [on Election Day] as you can.”
Be aware that rules in some states are subject to change pending the outcome of a number of lawsuits, said Senecal, who recommended voters consult the League of Women Voters’ Vote411 resource for up-to-date rules in their state. Look up your polling site in advance, as many have changed locations due to the pandemic, Miller added.
The biggest challenge posed by mail-in voting is that it’s new to many people and often a multi-step process, Miller said — but by and large, he added, the pros significantly outweigh the cons. “What mail-in voting does do is provide a safe way to vote amid COVID — and, added bonus, it boosts turnout overall as a long-term policy and it gives people a chance to study the ballot and make informed decisions,” he said.
Request your ballot early and pay close attention to all instructions and technical requirements. Affix the appropriate postage to return your ballot, if necessary; correctly handle the envelopes provided; and sign your name wherever indicated. Be aware that your state might require your signature to match what the government has on file, and try to match it to the signature on your driver’s license or your voter registration form if possible, Senecal said. See if your state has a process to fix signature discrepancies .
As for your ballot, “complete it early, send it back quickly, call the election office to see if they got it, and then ask if it was counted,” Pérez said. If the answer is no, ask why not and what you can do to fix it, she added — and do all of this before Election Day, if at all possible.
The only difficulty posed by mail-in voting, Hutchings said, is being mindful of the deadline to request your mail-in ballot. “Otherwise, it’s a perfectly safe and convenient way to vote,” he said.
Nearly all states allow voters to drop off voted absentee ballots at local election officials’ offices, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures; check to see if your state allows for dropoff at additional locations or offers ballot drop boxes. Forty-one states and the District of Columbia also let voters track their ballots after voting by mail, according to data compiled by NBC News . Where available, this feature can help reassure voters anxious about an unfamiliar process, Miller said.
“It works just like a UPS (NYS:UPS) or FedEx (NYS:FDX) tracking number — you just key it in on a website and it tells you where your ballot is,” he said. “A combination of making sure you cast that ballot early and using that ballot-tracking tool gives you the confidence that your ballot is being received and counted.”
Voters are entitled to cast a ballot without interference, intimidation or discrimination, Pérez said. Some states require voters to present photo ID, Miller added, and some also prohibit voters from wearing political apparel to the polls — so leave your Biden/Harris T-shirt or MAGA hat at home .
Don’t be deterred by lines that look a lot longer than usual, Miller said, as they’re likely the result of social-distancing mandates and may move quickly. If you encounter an obstacle while voting in person, Hutchings added, “you generally have a right to fill out a provisional ballot .”
If you live in an area with widespread polling-site closures, a lack of easy vote-by-mail options, and a history of long lines at polling locations, be prepared for the possibility of a long line, Miller said. Bring a water bottle.
“The vast majority of Americans wait mere moments,” Pérez said. “But voters of color, at least in 2018, waited longer . … Not only did they wait longer, they were more disproportionately likely to be in the longest of lines.”
Don’t be deterred by hiccups on Election Day, Pérez said. Make sure you have a ride to the polls, she said; if necessary, make arrangements with your employer to allow for extra time to stand in line, and try to line up backup child care.
“The most important thing for a voter to know is that if they’re standing in a line when the polls close, they are entitled to vote,” Senecal said. “So if there is a long line and they have the time to stay in line, we encourage them to do so.”
Bring your own personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, and blue or black pen, Senecal added. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend voting during off-peak hours, preparing any necessary documents or forms before arriving at the poll site, and filling out a sample ballot at home to expedite the process of casting your actual ballot.
President Trump has claimed without evidence that expanded mail-in voting would lead to widespread voter fraud, though many state and local Republicans have promoted it as a safe way to vote during the pandemic.
Voter fraud isn’t nonexistent, but studies suggest it is relatively rare: An American Political Science Review study published this year, for instance, estimated that “at most, only 1 in 4,000 votes cast in 2012 were double votes” — suggesting that “double voting is not currently carried out in such a systematic way that it presents a threat to the integrity of American elections,” the authors wrote.
Out of some 14.6 million votes cast by mail in 2016 and 2018, only 372 potential instances of voting on behalf of a dead person or double voting emerged, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from Oregon, Colorado and Washington, states that automatically send voters ballots. And Stanford University research published this spring found that vote-by-mail programs didn’t seem to impact either party’s turnout share or boost either party’s vote share.
Meanwhile, a Federal Bureau of Investigation official said that the agency hadn’t seen “a coordinated national voter fraud effort during a major election” to date, ABC News reported.
“There are numerous security features in place, and the evidence of fraud is very scant ,” Pérez said. “Every credible expert thinks that vote-by-mail has to be one of the solutions to the challenge that our country’s facing in this moment.”
Be patient and manage your expectations. Due to the expected deluge of mail-in votes, it’s likely we won’t know the results the morning after Election Day “unless it’s a blowout,” Miller said. Plus, under the 12th Amendment and the Electoral Count Act , states actually have five weeks to tally their popular-vote results, he said.
“It’s not ‘delayed’ until it exceeds that Dec. 8 deadline,” Miller said. “If states need three to four weeks to count the ballots, so be it — it’s more important that we get an accurate count than know on the morning of Nov. 4.” If the process is taking some time, he added, that means it’s being done well.
“If there’s one big misconception this election cycle, it’s that mail-in voting is somehow fraudulent or unreliable,” Hutchings said. “There is no evidence that either claim is true.”
Voting by mail “is not a new thing,” Miller said — after all, it began during the Civil War , and nearly one in four votes cast in 2018 was by mail. “This is not an untested method,” he said. “It’s been around for a while, and it works.”
This story was updated on Oct. 19, 2020.