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How to vote by mail: 6 steps to take to ensure your vote counts

Hate waiting in long lines? Not looking forward to donning a mask while casting your vote in the November 3 presidential election? Here's some good news: At least 83 percent of U.S. voters will be able to cast their ballot by mail for the 2020 presidential election, according to an analysis by the Washington Post in August.

For many Americans, though, voting by mail will be a new experience, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many states are either offering absentee ballots for the first time to keep crowds of people away from polling places or changing their rules to make voting by mail easier.

If voting by mail is something you've never done, you might be nervous. After all, how can you guarantee that your vote will be counted if you rely on the U.S. Postal Service instead of heading to your polling place on Election Day?

Fortunately, voting by mail is a fairly simple process. And if you follow the rules, your vote will be counted.

Here's a look at how to vote by mail and what steps to take to make sure that your mail-in ballot counts this fall.

1. Determine if you are registered to vote

You can't vote, by mail or in person, if you're not registered to vote. Fortunately, you can quickly check if you are registered by visiting the Can I Vote page of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Once you're on this page, click the "Voter Registration Status" link. You'll then have to provide some basic information, such as your first and last names, ZIP code, and address. Once you click "submit," you'll receive a notification that you either are or aren't registered to vote.

If you’re not registered to vote, you’ll need to correct this. You can do this by clicking on the “Register To Vote” link on the Can I Vote page. By clicking here, you’ll be able to start the registration process. And if you act quickly enough, you’ll be able to vote in the presidential election on November 3, 2020.

2. Request a ballot

Some states are sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters. That’s because of COVID-19. States want to prevent large crowds gathering at polling places on election day. One way to reduce crowds is to encourage more people to vote early by mail.

If you haven’t received a ballot through the mail, you can request one by visiting the Can I Vote page of the National Association of Secretaries of State. Click on the “Absentee and Early Voting” link to reach a dropdown menu of states. Select your state in the drop-down menu to receive instructions on how to obtain an absentee ballot. 

Many states will send voters a paper application for an absentee ballot by mail. Some will send your ballot to you automatically. You can also apply for your ballot online in many states.

Some states require you to provide an excuse for voting by mail. This could include an illness, being out of town on Election Day or being 65 or older, depending on your state. Many states will now accept fear of COVID-19 as an excuse to vote by mail. Most states, though, don’t require voters to provide any excuse to receive an absentee ballot. 

3. Research any changes your state might have made

You can be forgiven for thinking this is all a bit complicated. For this presidential election, 18 states and Washington, D.C., have made changes to increase access to by-mail voting. 

New Hampshire, Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, and Arkansas are now allowing people to vote by mail for the first time. Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Iowa are now mailing registered voters a vote-by-mail application. And California, New Jersey, Vermont, Nevada, and Washington, D.C., are sending registered voters their ballots directly.

In some states, registered voters need an excuse other than COVID-19 to vote by mail. These are Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, New York, Tennessee, and Texas. In all other states, registered voters can vote by mail without having to provide an excuse to do so.

4. Don’t miss any deadlines

Don't procrastinate when applying for your absentee ballot. If you miss your state's deadline, you'll have to vote in person.

The deadlines for requesting a mail ballot will vary depending on your state. For instance, in Alabama election officials must receive your application for an absentee ballot by October 29. In Arizona, your application must be received by election officials by October 23. And in Delaware, election officials must receive your application by noon on November 2. 

You'll need to send your official ballot in on time, too, to have your mail-in vote counted. In Delaware, election officials must receive your ballot by November 3. In Washington, D.C., your ballot must be postmarked by November 3 and received by election officials by November 10. In Illinois, absentee ballots must be postmarked by November 3 and received by November 17.

5. Follow the rules

Different states have different rules for voting by mail. In Alabama, absentee ballots must be signed by two witnesses or a notary public. You must enclose a photocopy of your photo ID.

In Arkansas, you need to include a photocopy of your photo ID with your absentee ballot, but you don't have to worry about notary publics or witnesses.

States such as California or Connecticut don't require you to provide a photocopy of your ID or the signatures of any witnesses.

6. Fill out your ballot properly

Once you receive your mail-in ballot, follow the directions carefully when filling it out. Be especially careful when signing. In many states, you must sign and date the outside of your mail-in ballot's envelope. Sign your name as it appears on your driver's license or ID card.

Interested in more information about voting by mail this year? Check out this guide published by USA.gov.

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