In the 2020 election season, voters are facing a number of challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic and affirmative efforts to suppress the vote. But we cannot be deterred from exercising this fundamental right, which is preservative of all of our rights. As a result, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) has worked to ensure that all voters have multiple options to safely and securely cast their ballots and to know that their votes will be counted. LDF has prepared this guide to help voters understand the voting options available to them, so they can choose the option that works best for them. LDF encourages all voters to vote as early as possible, whether in person or by mail.

In-Person Voting, Including Early Voting

In-person voting, especially in-person early voting, has significant advantages over mail or absentee voting:

    • Making sure your vote is counted. Voting in person makes it most likely that your vote will be counted. When a voter casts their vote in person at a polling place, their vote is nearly certain to be counted. The primary exception to this is voters who are required to cast a “provisional ballot,” for reasons such as lack of proper identification or uncertainty about whether they are at the correct polling place. Many voters, having voted in person, are familiar with how to cast a ballot in person and are less prone to make errors. Also, poll workers are available at polling locations to explain the proper way to complete a ballot. In contrast, voting by mail or absentee ballot, especially when it is new to a voter, incurs some risk that the vote will not be counted if the ballot is filled out incorrectly, the voter’s signature does not match that on file, or the ballot arrives too late at the elections office. As a result, the most secure way to ensure your vote will count is to vote in person.

    • Election Night vote count. All votes cast in person will be counted on Election Day, whereas votes cast by mail could take much longer to count. A number of states have laws prohibiting mail and absentee votes from being processed or counted until Election Day. As a result, the vote totals reported on Election Night will include all in-person votes but not all mail votes, so voters who want to make sure that their votes are reported on Election Night may want to vote in person.

    • Follow public health measures. Where election officials and voters exercise appropriate safety precautions, such as wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing, and using hand sanitizer, in-person voting can be  relatively safe. Voting, like any public activity, carries some degree of risk, but voters who wish to vote in person can and should take actions to minimize the risk involved. Equip yourself with personal protective gear and speak up if election officials and other voters are not following standard protocols. Try to identify a time to vote in person when the polls will not be crowded. If you are uncomfortable with the safety protocols at your polling place, ask to speak with the poll manager.

    • The earlier, the better. Early in-person voting can offer even more of the benefits described above than voting on November 3. Most states offer the option to vote in person before Election Day, referred to either as “early voting” or “absentee in-person voting.” Voters who wish to vote in person are strongly encouraged to do so during any available early voting period, for several reasons. First, the wait times will likely be shorter during early voting than on the final day to vote, making the experience both safer and more convenient. Second, going to vote early in person reduces the chances that an unexpected barrier may stand in the way of casting a vote that will count. When a voter goes to vote early, any unexpected challenge to voting—such as a changing work schedule or family commitment, traffic and other unexpected events, or long wait times at the polls—can be overcome, if necessary, by returning at a later time. Going to vote early enables voters to correct any technical issues they may encounter, such as forgetting to bring an ID or going to the wrong polling place, by leaving time for correction. Giving yourself multiple opportunities to vote is the best way to ensure that voting is safe, convenient, and secure.

Voting Rights Microsite

Find information about registration, deadlines, polling places, tracking your vote, or curing your ballot.

Absentee and Mail Voting

Despite different labels, absentee voting and voting by mail are the same thing.[1] This form of voting has become more available and more common in recent years. Now, every state allows at least some voters to vote from home by casting a ballot that has been mailed to them and can be returned by mail or in a secure drop box. Who is eligible to vote by mail, and how this voting is administered, varies by state.[2]

 

As described above, voting by mail carries a higher risk than in-person voting that the vote will not be counted for reasons such as being incorrectly completed, lacking a signature, improper use of or failure to use an inner secrecy envelope where provided, having a signature that does not match the signature on file, or arriving too late at the elections office. It is important that voters read and follow the instructions carefully. Although it varies by state, voters who incorrectly submit their ballots may not be notified of the error and their ballot may be discarded. A number of state and local elections offices have created videos to assist voters completing mail and absentee ballots.[3]

Many voters are understandably uncomfortable voting in person due to COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected persons of color. Casting an absentee ballot from the comfort of one’s own home may be the best option for some voters for the following reasons:

    • Accessibility and convenience. Voting by mail allows citizens to vote from their own homes on their own schedule. Reviewing ballots at home allows voters to take all the time they need to study candidates and issues and return their ballots quickly and at their convenience. Voting by mail eliminates many of the scheduling, transportation, and mobility barriers that make in-person voting difficult for many voters.

    • Physical safety. Voters who receive their ballots at home in the mail, complete those ballots at home, and return them via mail or at any available drop boxes do not expose themselves to any physical or health risks.

    • Time to fill out ballot. Voters who cast mail ballots have time to carefully consider the candidates and fill out their ballots at their own pace. It is important to ensure that the ballot is filled out properly and all instructions on the ballot are carefully followed.

    • Ability to track ballot. Most states offer voters the option to track their mail ballot and confirm when it has been received and if it was counted. It is important to track your ballot if you can to make sure that it has been received and counted.

    • Opportunity to cure defects. Many states provide voters with an opportunity to address issues or errors with their ballot. Check here to see whether your state provides a cure process, and, if you are concerned that your mail ballot may not be counted, call your state or county’s election office or visit their website to confirm the details of the process available to you.

Conclusion

Every voter should make sure that they familiarize themselves with their state’s options for voting by mail and voting in person—especially the option to vote early in person. Each voter will need to decide which voting option makes the most sense for them. Whether you prefer to vote early in person, by mail, or in person on Election Day, we encourage you to make a plan to vote by the method that feels safest and most secure to you and to vote as early as you can so that you can be sure your vote counts!

[1] A ballot sent to a voter and completed outside of a polling place has traditionally been called an “absentee ballot.” But this terminology has evolved as states have begun offering more opportunities to cast votes by mailed ballots. States now variously refer to “absentee ballots,” “advance ballots,” “mail ballots,” “mailed ballots,” and “vote-by-mail ballots.”
[2] Every state allows at least some voters to cast ballots by mail. Many states require voters to state a reason that justifies why they require a mailed ballot. In some states, no reason is required and every voter who wishes to vote by mail may do so. In a few states, all voting is now conducted by mail.
[3] See, for example, the videos created for Louisiana; Missouri; Miami-Dade County, Florida; and Pulaski County, Arkansas. Your state or county election office might offer similar video or written instructions.