Voting FAQ: How to Vote and What Else You Can Do to Get Involved

  • October 22, 2020
voting

The 2020 election is in full swing, and there’s a lot of information out there about what’s going on and what your options are. It can be hard to figure out what’s true, what isn’t, and what you can do. We’re here to help. This post is for you whether you’re eligible to vote or not – civic engagement is for everyone, because government affects us all.

This is in Question & Answer form, so you can go straight to the issues that are most relevant to you.

Who is eligible to vote?

You can vote in U.S. elections if you:

  • Are a U.S. citizen;
  • Meet the residency requirements of your state or territory
  • Are 18 years old on or before Election Day
    • In almost every state or territory, you can register to vote before you turn 18 if you will be 18 by Election Day. You can find voter registration age requirements by state here; and
  • Are registered to vote by your state or territory’s voter registration deadline.
    • North Dakota does not require voter registration.

If you have been accused of a crime but not convicted, that does not affect your eligibility to vote – even if you are currently incarcerated awaiting trial. Every state and territory has different laws about when and how people with criminal convictions can vote. You can check your state’s laws here.

What is a voting plan and how do you make one?

A voting plan is exactly what it sounds like: a plan for how you’re going to vote, when and where, and what you’re going to bring with you if you are voting in person. This guide will help you make a voting plan for your specific circumstances. You can also get started by checking whether you’re registered to vote, getting connected to your state’s voter registration page, finding your elected officials, and finding your 2020 candidates using ADL’s voting rights tool.

How can you check whether you’re already registered to vote?

If you have previously registered to vote at your current address, you should still be registered - you do not need to re-register for every election. However, it’s important to confirm that you are still registered, as people’s names are sometimes taken off voter registration rolls. You don’t want to be surprised on Election Day! You can check your voter registration status using ADL’s voting rights tool.

How can you register to vote?

Every state or territory has its own process and deadlines for registering to vote. You can learn more about registering to vote by going here and selecting your state or territory from the drop-down menu.

What are the different methods for voting this year?

Each state and territory has different means of voting and rules for doing so, but there are three basic ways to vote in this election: vote by mail (also known as voting by absentee ballot), in-person early voting, and in-person voting on Election Day.

Vote by mail

Vote by mail, also known as voting by absentee ballot, is when you receive your ballot by mail, fill it out, and return it to your Board of Elections either by mail or by dropping it off at a drop box in your area. In some places, your ballot is mailed to you automatically; in others, you have to request it. Check your government or Board of Elections website for details. It is important to carefully read the instructions on how to obtain, fill out, and return your mail-in ballot. For example, some places require the use of a secrecy envelope, which is an extra envelope that you put your ballot in before putting it in the envelope that you seal and put in the mail or drop box. Forgetting the secrecy envelope could mean that your vote doesn’t get counted! Luckily, you can ensure that your vote counts by remembering to pay attention to deadlines and read instructions carefully.

There have been a number of important measures taken to protect your mail-in ballot and ensure that it makes it to the Board of Elections. For example, 45 states and the District of Columbia now have ballot tracking. The U.S. Postal Service also answers a lot of detailed questions about voting by mail on their website. Although there have been a lot of fears raised and sensationalized reporting about whether ballots that you send in by mail will make it to their destination on time, these often refer to isolated incidents or are not based in fact. As with all mail, sending your ballot as early as possible is the best way to ensure that it arrives on time. You should also check your state’s rules about when your ballot must be postmarked by and what date it must be received by. Mailing in your ballot is a safe and secure way to make your voice heard.

Members of the military, their families, and overseas citizens have successfully been voting by mail for many years. If you are or are related to a member of the military, or are living overseas, you can find guidance on voting by mail here.

Early voting

Early voting allows you to vote in-person before Election Day. Early voting sites and hours are often different than your Election Day polling place, so check your state, territory, or local government or Board of Elections website to find out where to go.

Voting on election day

When people think about voting, they usually imagine voting in-person on Election Day. You can still do that this year if you want or need to. Just be sure to follow the latest CDC guidelines for protecting yourself and others and check the location of your polling place - it may have changed since last year!

What should you bring with you to the polls?

  • Depending on what state or territory you live in and whether you’ve voted before, you may need to bring your voter ID
    • If your state or territory requires ID and you don’t bring an ID with you, you can still cast your vote using a provisional ballot; be sure to request a provisional ballot at your polling place and for the follow-up instructions if you cast a provisional ballot
  • Some states/territories/localities require that you wear a mask or face covering
  • You may also want to bring:
    • a spare mask
    • hand sanitizer
    • a black ink pen and stylus, if you have one, for touch screens
    • a charged phone
    • snacks
    • water
    • something to read, watch, or listen to in case there’s a line
    • comfortable shoes

What if the photo on your ID doesn’t match your appearance?

  • There is no requirement that your physical presentation must match the characteristics typically associated with a “male” or “female” name or gender marker.
  • Ensure that the name and address on your ID match your voter registration before you go to the polls.
  • If your ID has a different name or address than what is on your voter registration, you may want to bring your court-ordered name change or other documentation with you. However, depending on where you are, you may have difficulty voting. If that is the case, call the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE, look for a volunteer attorney or poll observer for assistance, or if all else fails, request a “provisional ballot” and the follow-up instructions.
  • For more detailed information, see Lambda Legal’s Voting guide for TGNCNB people.

What can you do to help protect yourself and others from COVID-19?

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose a threat to all of us, but there are basic precautions you can take to minimize the risk to yourself and others if you decide to vote in-person.

  • Maintain a distance of at least 6 feet between yourself and others
  • Wear a mask
  • Bring your own black ink pen and stylus, if you have one, for touch screens
  • Avoid bringing any unnecessary persons to the polls
  • Stay outdoors as long as possible at your polling site
  • Check here for more safety precautions you can take

What if you have a disability?

Federal law protects the rights of voters with disabilities. State, territory, or local laws may provide additional protections - check your board of elections website. However, there remain practical obstacles to voting access for people with disabilities. Knowing your rights and what to expect will help you ensure that you are able to exercise your vote.

  • Learn about rights specific to disability access here
    • among other things, you have the right to:
      • vote privately and independently
      • use an accessible ballot
      • have someone you choose help you vote (this cannot be your boss, union representative, or a candidate)
      • have a poll worker help you
  • If you can do so safely, it may be helpful to check out your polling place in advance to make sure it’s accessible and address any issues in advance if possible

What should you do if you go to your polling place and feel intimidated?

If you personally experience or witness firsthand hateful or extremist conduct at the polls, at a ballot box, or at a political rally, we encourage you to report the incident through ADL’s incident response form. You also can text “hatehelp” to 51555, and you will immediately receive a link to ADL’s incident response form.

For any incidents specifically related to exercising the right to vote, especially on Election Day at the polls, immediately call 1-866-OUR-VOTE. 

What if English is not my primary language, or if I have difficulty reading?

You do not need to speak, read, or write English in order to vote. If you need help voting, you have the right to have someone you choose help you interpret the ballot (this cannot be your boss, union representative, or a candidate). You can also ask a poll worker for help, and some polling sites have interpreters available.

Federal law also requires certain counties and jurisdictions to provide bilingual voting materials in communities with language minorities and limited-English proficient residents.

What do immigrants need to know about voting?

You must be a U.S. citizen to vote in U.S. elections. This means you must have taken the oath of allegiance in order to be eligible to vote. Lawful permanent residents (“green card” holders) are not eligible to vote.

The citizenship status of one person in a household does not control whether other people in the household are eligible to vote. So, if you live in a mixed-status household where some people are U.S. citizens and others are not, then some people in your household may be eligible to vote.

What about voting access concerns specific to Native Americans?

Native Americans continue to face additional obstacles to voting. For example, Native Americans who live on reservations without street addresses often have difficulty meeting voter ID requirements. However, organizations such as Native Vote provide support and resources specifically designed to meet the needs of Native American voters.

How can you get involved besides voting?

Be a poll worker

There’s still a significant shortage of poll workers, so one of the best things you can do to get involved beyond voting is to be a poll worker during early voting or on Election Day (or both!), if that’s something you or the people in your household feel relatively safe doing with appropriate precautions. Power the Polls can answer your detailed questions and help you sign up. Note that, although it is often referred to as a volunteer activity, many places pay poll workers.         

Help the eligible voters in your life make a voting plan

This is something you can do whether you’re eligible to vote yourself or not. Ask the eligible voters in your life whether they have a voting plan and, if not, help them make one! If you are eligible to vote, share your voting plan during personal conversations and on social media and ask others to share theirs.           

Report disinformation and misinformation to Common Cause

There’s a lot of inaccurate election-related information out there, much of which is harmful to voting rights and civic engagement. Please DO NOT engage with this information, since social media platforms reward engagement in their algorithms. Instead, report it to Common Cause’s Disinformation Tip Line.

If you have problems voting or have additional questions, please call the national, non-partisan Election Protection Hotline:

English: 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683)

Spanish: 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA (1-888-839-8682)

Arabic:  1-844-YALLA-US (1-844-925-5287)

Bengali, Cantonese, Hindi, Urdu, Korean, Mandarin, Tagalog, or Vietnamese: 1-888-274-8683

Learn more at ADL’s Voting Rights Page