Election Day is November 3rd

As contentious as election seasons can feel, voting often brings with it countering emotions of excitement and empowerment. There’s the four-year wait, the lines filled with your fellow constituents, the “I Voted” sticker that you may or may not post to Instagram. Most memorably, there’s the private quiet that surrounds you as you directly exercise a constitutional right and then, of course, the anticipation that follows as you undoubtedly glue yourself to the TV and Twitter to see if you—in your own way—“won.” Though the process may look a little different this year, it’s no less essential.

Though the process may look a little different this year, it’s no less essential.

This year, due to the spread of COVID-19, registered voters across the nation are considering forgoing the crowds and casting their ballots by mail instead to protect both themselves and their neighbors. While this is not a new practice—as for decades the measure has been available to those who are disabled, deployed with the military, or impacted for other reasons—this may be the first year that you or someone you know decides to vote without visiting your respective polling places. Here are a few tips on how to vote from home (or wherever you may be), but remember that every state is different, so be sure to get informed about where you live!

1. Register to vote

You probably saw this one coming. First things first, if you’re not already registered to vote, clear a small sliver of your schedule and take a few minutes to do so. You can use Vote.org, the largest non-profit, non-partisan voting registration technology platform in the U.S. And if you scroll a bit past the registration form, you can learn about your state’s rules and requirements for registering, plus its respective deadlines for doing so in-person, by mail, and online.

(If you’re unsure about or can’t remember if you’re currently registered to vote, you can double-check your status here. All you need is your name, address, and date of birth.) 

2. Learn the terms

As if politics weren’t already confusing enough, this year, to adapt to the effects of the pandemic, policies and criteria have changed, so we may need an update of our education, too.

Typically, an absentee ballot is a ballot requested by a registered voter who is unable to vote in-person. (It’s then usually mailed.) While every state allows absentee voting (as confirmed by the United States government), some require you to submit a valid excuse. Acceptable excuses include being ill, aged 65 or older, out of town on election day, and other reasons. 

As some states have done away with the requirement for an excuse amid the pandemic (because residents are not so much “absent” as they are taking precaution), the term no-excuse absentee voting has also emerged.

Normally, a mail-in ballot is an unsolicited ballot—as in, it does not need to be requested like an absentee ballot—and is automatically mailed to every registered voter. For example, California (where The Good Trade is based) is implementing this process due to COVID-19. (This form of voting has also recently been referred to as universal vote by mail and all mail voting.) 

As the voting rules for this election continue to adapt, the term ‘mail-in voting’ has grown to be more inclusive.

However, as the voting rules for this election continue to adapt, CNET says the term “mail-in voting” has grown to be more inclusive. “Ultimately, when states talk about mail-in voting, they’re talking broadly about all ballots that are sent through the mail,” writes Alison DeNisco Rayome. “Mail-in ballots refer to ballots in the context of policies that allow all people to vote by mail.”

Important: Remember that every state is different; some may allow absentee ballots to be dropped off in-person if you change your mind and decide to brave the line, while others maintain that mail-in ballots can only be mailed. 

3. Request a ballot (if your state isn’t sending you one)

If your state isn’t going to automatically mail you a ballot, you must request an absentee one. And to help determine which process your state is implementing, data journalism organization FiveThirtyEight has created a clickable U.S. map that reveals, per state, if ballots (or just their applications) are automatically mailed to voters, if a valid excuse is required when requesting a ballot, the dates in which the ballots need to be postmarked and received once mailed back, and more.

If it turns out you live in a state where a ballot needs to be requested, head to Vote.org. Once there, you can fill out a request form and then scroll a bit past it to learn about each state’s rules, dates, and deadlines for absentee ballots.

4. Fill out your ballot 

If you’ve ever taken a standardized test in school, you likely remember practitioners ingraining in students’ minds the importance of how the exam was filled out: you needed the proper writing tool, a healthy dose of ink (or lead), and an ability to stay within the lines of each of its many, many bubbles. Use this same approach when completing a ballot.

Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, told NPR, “If it says fill in the oval, fill in the oval.” That means not an “x,” not a checkmark, not a little smiley face. Equally as important is your signature, which NPR reminds voters is to be written on the outer envelope, not the ballot itself. Even if it’s been a while since you’ve practiced your cursive, do your best to make it legible—not your “grocery store signature,” says McReynolds.

If it says fill in the oval, fill in the oval.
— Amber McReynolds, CEO of National Vote at Home Institute

5. Mail your ballot in (or drop it off)

As critical as deadlines are, this year, we would especially urge voters to take action as early as possible. In other words, once you’ve received and completed your ballot, don’t let it sit by your front door or on a to-do list—especially because, due to the spread of COVID-19, in-person voting will likely have its restrictions and limitations this year. This means that mail-ins could become voters’ preferred method in an unprecedented way, and the anticipated influx has already become a concern for the United States Postal Service.

It bears repeating that every state is different. For example, while California will allow residents’ ballots to be dropped in a ballot box, mailed to the county elections official, or returned to a polling place in person, Missouri will only allow mail-in ballots to be returned through the mail while, comparatively, its absentee ballots can be turned in in person. (Missouri also has stipulations about which ballots require a notary and which don’t.) We can’t stress enough how important it is for you to learn the rules and regulations of your state. When in doubt, contact your County Elections Office to get the correct information.

Once you’ve received and completed your ballot, don’t let it sit by your front door or on a to-do list.

Last month, former First Lady Michelle Obama stated in her speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, “We’ve got to request our mail-in ballots right now, tonight, and send them back immediately and follow-up to make sure they’re received. And then, make sure our friends and families do the same.” So, remember the early bird that got the worm? Let’s be more like that bird. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, early voting may be permitted as early as 45 days before the election, or as late as the Friday before the election. So check out the NCSL’s website to discover your state’s early voting deadlines.

6. Track your ballot

As excitedly (and impatiently) as you track an online purchase you’ve made, do the same for your ballot—again, if your state allows. According to CNN, most states give your ballot a code and you can track its process on the Secretary of State’s website. 

If in the worst-case scenario your ballot does not reach its destination, Zachary B. Wolf, senior writer at CNN Politics, says, “You might want to head to your polling place and explore your options, which are probably filling out a provisional ballot.” (According to the NCSL, a provisional ballot ensures that voters are not excluded from the voting process due to an administrative error. How the ballots are handled is, of course, determined by state law, so check here to learn the permissible common reasons, per state, that provisional ballots are issued.)

Voting has always been important, and though we likely wouldn’t have predicted we’d be doing it during a pandemic, in a culture that feels increasingly divided, those are the exact reasons that voting this year feels more vital than ever. We hope you practice your right!

And as you await Election Day, check out how to fact-check your media consumption, how to read a ballot, and how to emotionally prepare for the upcoming election.

What nonpartisan resources are you using to stay informed about this year’s election? 🗳️ Share in the comments below!


Danielle Cheesman was born and raised in New Jersey, where she lived until moving to Philadelphia to study journalism at Temple University. She has spent her years writing and developing editorial visions for music, art, and lifestyle brands. Now residing in Los Angeles, you can usually find her taking pictures, making playlists, or cuddling her pup. Say hi on Instagram!