Voting in person this election season — whether early or on Nov. 3 — means coming prepared, understanding the rules and knowing your rights, elections experts say.
Eleven days before Election Day, more than 47 million people in the U.S. have already voted, according to an analysis by the Washington Post, reaching 100% of the total early voting in 2016. Most states have expanded mail voting options due to the pandemic, and some have also increased opportunities to vote early in person.
Some 59% of registered voters say they plan to vote early (either by mail or in person) or already have done so, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of 1,000 people conducted Oct. 9 to Oct. 12. Polls have suggested a partisan split in voting preference, with Democrats more likely than Republicans to say they’ll vote early.
Experts previously told MarketWatch that voters should cast their ballots by whichever means they feel most comfortable, because personal risk tolerance around COVID-19 will vary from person to person.
‘Do your research, as much as you can, to find out the details of what’s required when you actually go to the polls. Check and double check what the expectations are.’
Voters who head to the polls in person should wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash their hands and/or use hand sanitizer, try to vote during off-peak hours, prepare any necessary documents or forms before arriving at the polling location, and fill out a sample ballot at home to expedite the process of casting their actual ballot, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend.
Here are other things to keep in mind before voting in person between now and Election Day:
Arrive at your polling place prepared
“Do your research, as much as you can, to find out the details of what’s required when you actually go to the polls,” Jan Leighley, an American University professor whose research interests include voter turnout and election laws, told MarketWatch. “Check and double check what the expectations are.”
Look up your early voting or Election Day polling site, which may have changed locations because of the pandemic. See if your state will require you to present a photo ID or similar documentation, and whether it will allow you to use other forms of identification, such as a student or employee ID or utility bill with your current address. Know whether your state will require you to provide a signature matching the one you have on file. If you have a felony conviction, don’t assume you can’t vote — check.
Making a plan for when you’re going to vote, where exactly you need to go, and what you need to bring to your polling place can help you avoid common voting mistakes, said Stephanie Young, the chief officer for communications, culture and partnerships for When We All Vote, a nonpartisan nonprofit co-chaired by former First Lady Michelle Obama.
“Make sure you know your rights,” added Young, who also held positions in the Obama White House. “What we know is that informed voters cannot be suppressed voters.”
Dress for successful voting
All states have rules governing political activities in and around polling places, and a number of them prohibit voters from wearing political apparel to poll locations. When in doubt, leave your Biden/Harris cap or MAGA face mask at home.
In one recent case, Black Lives Matter apparel didn’t fall into this category: A Tennessee poll worker was reportedly fired last week after telling early voters wearing apparel supporting the racial-justice movement to turn their shirts or masks inside out. A spokeswoman for the county election commission told the Washington Post that Black Lives Matter apparel didn’t violate the state’s electioneering laws, as it didn’t reflect any specific candidate or political party.
Some people have found interesting workarounds: In September, a New Hampshire primary voter who was told she couldn’t wear a shirt calling the late Sen. John McCain a “hero” and President Trump a “zero” chose to remove the shirt and vote topless, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader.
Read the entire ballot — including the back
Some voters get tripped up by missing some of the races on their ballot, Marc Meredith, a University of Pennsylvania associate professor who studies election administration and election law, told MarketWatch. Ballot design flaws could even play a part: Reports suggest that poor ballot design could actually have changed the outcome of Florida’s 2018 Senate race.
“Double check to make sure that you’re getting all the votes on that ballot that you want,” Meredith said. “Sometimes people don’t think to look on the back, and there aren’t clear instructions to do that.”
If you make a mistake on your ballot, ask a poll worker for a new one, said Young, who says she once accidentally filled in a bubble for the wrong candidate because she was thinking about the person she didn’t want to vote for.
Before you take a ballot selfie, check whether it’s allowed
While some states have begun allowing so-called ballot selfies with voters’ marked ballots in recent years, others restrict such activity over ballot-secrecy concerns. Some states have also barred voters from using their cellphones at polling places or taking photos of their completed ballots. Check the rules in your state.
Call for backup if you have voting problems
The Election Protection hotline (866-OUR-VOTE or 866-687-8683), administered by the nonpartisan nonprofit Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, works to answer questions and address voting problems.
Hotline services administered by partner groups are also available in Spanish (888-VE-Y-VOTA or 888-839-8682), Arabic (844-YALLA-US or 844-925-5287) and several Asian languages (888-API-VOTE or 888-274-8683).
If someone questions your voter registration status, ask for a provisional ballot
As the MIT Election Data and Science Lab puts it, “provisional ballots are intended to provide fail-safe protection for voters when there are questions about their registration status on Election Day.” Generally speaking, a marked provisional ballot is put into a special secrecy envelope, and if it’s determined after polls close that the voter was indeed registered on Election Day, their ballot is counted, the lab says.
“If you feel like you’re in the right polling site and you’re eligible to vote, insist that you should be given a provisional ballot,” Meredith said. “Every provisional ballot is considered and counted if the person fulfills the requirements to be able to vote.”
When We All Vote encourages voters facing questions about their eligibility or registration to first ask why they aren’t able to cast a regular ballot, then call the Election Protection hotline to explain what happened and see if they can actually cast a regular ballot or should proceed with a provisional ballot.
The American Civil Liberties Union advises asking the poll worker to double check the list of registered voters for your name, asking if there’s a supplemental list of voters and verifying that you’re at the right polling place before requesting a provisional ballot.
To the extent that you want your provisional ballot to be counted, you should still provide any additional information requested by your election office even if winners are predicted or projected on Election Night, Leighley said. After all, she said, “we’ve never had official results on Election Night” — and some contests, particularly down-ballot races, could wind up being close.
“Because states vary on when and how absentee ballots are counted, and when and how provisional ballots must come in or may come in, Election Night has never had the final numbers,” Leighley said. Secretaries of state and election officials certify results days or even weeks after Election Day.
If someone intimidates or harasses you, speak up
Voter intimidation is illegal under federal law. Examples include spreading misinformation about voter requirements (like passing a test or knowing how to speak English), misrepresenting oneself as an election official, and “aggressively questioning voters about their citizenship, criminal record, or other qualifications to vote,” according to the ACLU.
“Your first line of defense is to ask the poll workers to ask the person to stop,” Meredith said. If that proves unsuccessful, or if you simply want to report your experience to prevent the same thing from happening to others, you can also contact your local elections office, he added.
If someone is intimidating or harassing you in line, Young said, try to find a law-enforcement official and tell them what’s happening. If law enforcement isn’t responding, call the hotline, she said. Of course, your first call should be to 911 if you feel like you’re in imminent danger.
If you’ve already received your mail ballot but decide you want to vote in person…
Still in line when your polling place is about to close? Stay put
If you’re in line before the polling site closes, Young said, “you have every right to vote.” “You absolutely do not leave that line,” she said. If someone tries to shut down the line, call the hotline, she added.