Though absentee ballots have been used in elections for centuries, this year's mass movement to vote by mail due to the pandemic feels entirely different. While many are able to still head to the polls on election day (or for early voting) millions of people across the country have already received their absentee ballots for the 2020 election. But for many first-time voters (or first time absentee voters), this process can seem confusing, particularly with all of the active voter suppression tactics at play.
The rules for absentee voting vary by state, as some have pushed more adaptive plans than others. Some states, like California, Vermont, and Nevada are sending ballots out to every voter; and others like New York and Indiana will require voters to present an excuse before receiving an absentee ballot.
But one thing is certain, whatever the situation is in your state, it will surely be attacked by the president, who has railed against voting by mail for months. Trump has repeatedly claimed without evidence that mail-in voting would be rife with fraud and that the process may be manipulated to send ballots only to Democratic areas of the country. He has also attacked states that have chosen to automatically send ballots to every voter this year, calling the practice "illegal," and has even threatened to withhold federal funding from those states.
Despite the president’s near-constant attempts to suppress voting on a massive scale this year, absentee voting is nothing new. You can learn more about the requirements in your respective state here, including what you need to know before voting, and any important deadlines to keep in mind before sending out your ballot.
While the whole process might feel more confusing or overwhelming this year, especially for first-time voters, we are here to help you figure out exactly how to fill out your ballot.
Check everything in your absentee ballot packet.
The contents of your vote by mail packet will vary by state depending on the existing laws where you live. Typically, your packet will include the ballot itself, instructions regarding how to fill it out, and any additional envelopes you might need.
Some states, like Alabama, will include a secrecy envelope that you need to seal the ballot in, an affidavit envelope (which is the outer envelope that you’ll need to sign), and a pre-addressed envelope that you’ll seal everything in before sending it out. The process in other states might be more basic. For example, in Illinois you will receive only a ballot, instructions, and a "Ballot Return Envelope.”
Prepare yourself with the right tools to fill out your absentee ballot.
The tools you’ll need to fill out your ballot are pretty straightforward. You will need a black or blue pen because the ballot scanners can’t read other colors, like red ink. In some states, you might also need a witness or two to sign your affidavit. The witness can be anyone over the age of 18, like a friend, a family member, or even a postal worker. While this remains a requirement in some states right now, voting rights advocates are challenging these witness requirements where they exist, in states like North Carolina, Minnesota, and Alabama, among others.
Some states, like Kentucky, Louisiana, and Missouri also require a photocopy of your ID to vote by mail. You might also have to provide a photocopy of your ID if this is your first time voting in a federal election. Again, voting rights advocates are challenging these requirements, which are especially harmful to low-income voters.
Make sure you fill each section of your absentee ballot out correctly.
Filling in your ballot correctly is very important to making sure it counts. You should only choose one candidate for each office, unless your instructions tell you otherwise. For example, some elections for local or state offices might allow you to choose multiple candidates. When you fill in your ballot, make sure that you completely fill in the oval next to your preferred candidate’s name. Remember how you had to fill in your bubbles on a standardized test? Well, it’s like that — channel that energy.
You can also write in a candidate in the write-in space. If you choose to do so, make sure to also fill in the oval next to your write-in candidate’s name, like you would with a candidate whose name is already on the ballot.
Some states will also require your signature to match one on file, usually pulling from the DMV, so make sure to have your ID or driver’s license on hand to compare.
Identify everything on your absentee ballot.
Every ballot, no matter what state you’re living in, will have a section for the presidential election, which will include each candidate and their running mate. This year’s ballots will name President Trump, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, and Libertarian Party candidate Jo Jorgensen.
Your ballot will also include candidates in other state and local elections taking place where you live, as well as different measures being considered there. For instance, some voters in Oregon will have the opportunity this year to decide on whether to implement a new police oversight board. Some states are also holding elections for Congressional seats and the State’s Attorney’s office. You can find a sample of your own ballot here.
Find out if you can use an absentee ballot drop box.
The option to drop off your ballot at an official drop box isn't available in every state, but if it's available in your state, you should explore this option. Using a ballot drop box is a simple way to ensure your ballot gets counted in the 2020 election, whereas, given all the attacks on the USPS, so much could go wrong with regular mail. But it's also important to make sure you find an official ballot drop box as California — among other states — have seen members of the GOP admit to placing unofficial ones around several towns for ballot harvesting.
Track your absentee ballot online.
The last thing you’ll want to do after filling and sending out your ballot is track it online. Make sure to hold on to the tracking number on your ballot so you can more easily locate it. You might also need to include information like your name, date of birth, and social security number, as each state uses a different service to help you keep track of your mail-in ballot.
If you have any questions about the contents of your mail-in packet or anything else related to voting in your state, you should contact your local election office.