All the Ways You Can Vote This Election—And How To Make Sure You’re Eligible

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Photo: Stocksy / Sean Locke
The pandemic has made voting this year a little trickier. Social distancing guidelines will make lines at polls longer. Mail-in ballots can be confusing—and we're relying on a strained postal service to process those ballots. In order to make sure your vote counts, Lonna Atkeson, PhD, professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, is here to break down your options.

If you're going to vote, you first need to register. Voter registration deadlines vary from state to state, but Dr. Atkeson says there are often still opportunities after that formal date.

"There's a lot of opportunities [in a lot of states] even if registration is over to have sort of emergency registration or same-day registration," she says.

If you are registered, there's a chance your name could be inaccurately purged from state records. Purging is how states remove the names of people who they believe are ineligible to vote, like people who have moved or died. Last year, for example, Ohio was set to purge 235,000 voters, but further investigation found that 20 percent of those listed were eligible voters. Georgia and Wisconsin have come under fire, too, for improperly purging thousands of voters from their systems.

Experts In This Article
  • Lonna Atkeson, PhD, Lonna Atkeson, PhD, is a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. Dr. Atkeson's general research program involves a wide number of subfields within political science including elections, campaigns, election administration, public opinion, political behavior, the media,...

Dr. Atkeson says these situations are rare, but if you do show up on Election Day to find that your name isn't on the registration rolls, if possible, you'll need to re-register. If not, she says you can request a provisional ballot, also called challenge ballots or affidavit ballots in certain states.

"You would vote provisionally, and then depending on whether you were purged or whether you were just seen as inactive, depending on what happened there, you may or may not get your vote counted," she says.

Avoid any surprises and double-check your registration by contacting your state election officials.

When it comes to voting, you can do it in person or by mail (which is the same as voting absentee). For many states, polls will be open but likely with longer, slower lines. You can only vote absentee if you're eligible. Seven states require an excuse to vote by mail. In Texas, the COVID-19 pandemic is not currently an excuse, but regulations are changing every day. In New York, COVID-19 just became a valid excuse for the general election on Thursday.

Many states are opting to forgo traditional polls with an in-person-absentee-vote hybrid. Voters are mailed a ballot that they drop off in person or given a ballot to fill out in their car.

"In Montana, some counties had drive-up services [during the primaries]," she says. "Arizona is doing that too, where on Election Day, you can drive up, drop off your ballot to someone standing there."

Other states have options where you can drop off an absentee ballot to a secure box. And of course, you can mail in your ballot. Given delays in the United States Postal Service, you'll want to request and send in your ballot as early as possible. Last week, the postal service sent a letter to 46 states and Washington, D.C., highlighting that local deadlines for requesting and returning ballots did not leave enough time for delivery, based on estimates.

Due to federalism, election laws vary from state to state. For more information on voting in your state, visit your secretary of state's website. To register, check your registration status, or request a ballot, reach out to your state election officials, which could be the board of elections, the county clerk,  election director, county recorder, etc., depending on where you live.

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