The 2020 presidential election will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. This election is likely to be more confusing than most due to the pandemic,  and different state rules about mail-in voting, which will be more prevalent this year. Although voting by mail is a possibility in all 50 states, many potential voters have expressed uncertainty about how the process works. 

If you’re confused, don’t be. Here’s a breakdown of what’s going on with voting around the country. 

REGISTERING TO VOTE

If you aren’t already registered to vote, each state requires you to register by a rolling set of dates in October. You can find your state’s exact date on this list. Most states have multiple options for registration, such as in-person, by mail, and online. It’s important to check your particular state’s rules so you don’t miss a deadline. 

What is absentee voting, and how is it different from mail-in voting? 

In practice, there isn’t much of a difference. Absentee voting encompasses any voter who cannot be at the polls. Most states include chronic or severe illness, citizens overseas, poll workers, and those who are traveling as valid reasons to request an absentee ballot. This year, Covid-19 concerns count as a valid reason to request an absentee ballot in 44 states and Washington D.C. (See below.) 

Absentee ballots are almost always mailed in. However, an absentee ballot can also be hand-delivered to your local board of elections, or a polling place. Mail-in ballots, on the other hand, are always—ahem—mailed in. A small number of states allow you to vote by mail even if you don’t have an absentee excuse (for that list, also see below). So: most absentee ballots are also mailed in. And—because only a small number of states allow for mail-in voting without an absentee excuse —most mail-in ballots are also absentee. 

VOTING

This is where things can get confusing, since different states have different rules.

Mail-in ballots sent automatically

A handful of states and one district  will automatically mail paper ballots to all registered voters. Some of these are the “universal mail-in” states that have conducted elections this way for years. Others, like California, New Jersey, and Vermont are automatically mailing ballots in response to the pandemic. 

Here’s the full list: 

Washington

Oregon

California

Utah

Nevada

Colorado 

New Jersey

Hawaii

Washington D.C.

Vermont

Application for mail-in ballots necessary

Another 35 states will allow you to cite the pandemic as a valid reason to vote absentee by mail, but you need to apply for your ballot. Some of these states may automatically send you an application to vote absentee. In the other states, you must request your absentee ballot either online or by mail. (Here’s where you can do that. And here is a list of deadlines by state to request your ballot. The deadlines begin Oct. 9. )

Pandemic-related absentee ballots are permitted in the following states:

Alabama 

Arkansas

Alaska

Arizona

Connecticut

Delaware

Florida

Georgia

Idaho

Illinois

Iowa

Kansas

Kentucky

Maine

Maryland

Massachusetts

Michigan 

Minnesota

Missouri

Montana

Nebraska

North Carolina

North Dakota

New Hampshire 

New Mexico

New York

Ohio

Oklahoma

Pennsylvania 

Rhode Island 

South Dakota

Virginia

West Virginia

Wisconsin

Wyoming

States that require a non-pandemic excuse to vote absentee

Finally, six states will not allow absentee voting due to the pandemic. That means that if you’re not traveling and have no other valid excuse to vote absentee (see above), you must vote in-person. 

The states that are not allowing mail-in voting because of the pandemic are: 

Texas

Louisiana

Mississippi

South Carolina

Indiana 

Tennessee

Is voting by mail safe? Will my vote be counted? 

There’s been a lot of speculation that mail-in ballots will not be counted, and for good reason. Thirty-five states will allow you to request a ballot so close to the voting deadline that the U.S. Post Office may not be able to return the ballot in time, according to The New York Times.  If you live in one of the ten regions that are sending out ballots automatically, or in one of the states that won’t send out ballots close to the deadline (Maryland, New York, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Iowa or Alaska), you can rest easy that your vote will be counted if you send your ballot in on time.

However, you can ensure that your mail-in vote will be counted no matter where you live by requesting your ballot early and sending it back early. To be safe, you should allow the ballot one week to arrive and one week to be delivered. Not all ballots must be delivered by Nov. 3 to be counted. Again, that varies by state. This list shows which states require a postmarked ballot by Nov. 2 or 3, as well as acceptable delivery dates for each state.  

What is voting early, and should I do it? 

Roughly two thirds of states allow you to vote up to 45 days early by voting in person. But remember, voting by mail is also voting early. Once you’re confident in your decision, you should vote as soon as you can to make sure your ballot is counted on time. As mentioned above, voting by mail too close to the deadline could result in your vote not being counted in some states.

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