The 2020 election is going to be different than any election in American history.
States are already working to change everything to accommodate the coronavirus, from stocking up on hand sanitizer to making arrangements to use NBA arenas as polling places. But the biggest difference is mail-in voting.
Voting is slightly different in every county and state across the country — but on the whole, it will be easier to vote by mail than ever before. States are relaxing restrictions on who's eligible to do it, and in some states, they're spending money on sending ballot request forms or even ballots to all registered voters.
That means more people are going to vote by mail than ever before, and it also means millions of voters are going to vote-by-mail for the very first time in November.
We've broken down the logistics here to make voting by mail a little less daunting.
1. Register to vote
Step one is the same regardless of whether you want to vote in-person or whether you want to vote by mail. You need to get registered. You cannot vote in any way without being on the rolls.
Start by going to your local elections website. To find the correct website, you can head to Vote.org, a nonpartisan web clearinghouse for voting information. Just tell the website what state you're in and what county you're in, and it will send you information to get registered.
2. Request your mail–in ballot
Next, you need to request the absentee ballot. Because of the coronavirus, a lot of states have relaxed the need for an excuse to request an absentee ballot. Most of the time it's as simple as filling out a form online. Occasionally you may have to send an email to your local election official or fill out a paper form, but those scenarios are pretty rare.
Even if you're in one of those few states that still require an excuse to vote by mail, Amber McReynolds, of the National Vote at Home Institute, says that shouldn't stop you from trying. A lot of people do qualify, but they just don't realize it.
Some states are universal mail ballot states. If you live in one and you are a registered voter, your local election official will just automatically mail you a ballot. But it's really important that your local election official has your correct address. You can check this online. Again, Vote.org is a great place to start.
McReynolds told us that the closer it gets to Election Day, the more overwhelmed voting officials get by paperwork. So request the ballot now, or as soon as possible. Don't wait.
3. Fill out your ballot — correctly
There are two big things that can slip up voters when they are filling out a mail ballot: filling out the ballot incorrectly, and signing it incorrectly.
Both steps can seem fairly straightforward, but not taking the extra minute to read the instructions can mean your local official has to contact you, or worse, your ballot doesn't get counted.
"If it says fill in the oval, fill in the oval," McReynolds says. Don't write a check mark or circle a name.
The second thing is signatures. These are on the outer envelope, not actually on the ballot. Make sure you sign that envelope. McReynolds says, don't use your "grocery store signature." Use your official signature to make sure that ballot ends up getting counted.
4. Return your ballot
Don't fill it out and then let it sit on the kitchen counter. When you finish filling it out and signing it, you should make sure you give the post office time to get it to your election official. In a lot of jurisdictions, you can actually track your ballot online like you'd track a package you bought online.
A lot of people are worried that the post office is just going to be overwhelmed with ballots this October and early November. With that in mind, a lot of jurisdictions also offer ballot drop-off locations, either in designated drop boxes or at a precinct or polling place. Of course, you can just drop it off at your local election official's office, too.
5. Help a friend
Once you've figured out this system, and especially if you're in a place where lots of people historically haven't voted by mail, think about helping a friend or offering assistance on social media. You could really be a resource to people who either don't know what to do or are intimidated by it.
We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.
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The podcast portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider.