Voting in 2020: Everything you need to know (because it’s never mattered more)

And we’re off! As of early October, voting has already begun in many states across the country. And by November 3, 2020, millions of American will cast their ballot by mail or in person, in what’s arguably the most consequential election of our lifetime.

A confluence of four major events — a global pandemic, a devastating recession, a much-needed racial reckoning, and our rapidly changing climate — have exacerbated huge divides in our country that disproportionately affect women and people of color. And that’s why it’s more important than ever for our interests to be represented at the polls.

Women account for 51 percent of the U.S. population — an advantage! — but we don’t have the best track record for turning out in elections. Only about 63 percent of us voted in the 2016 presidential election. (U.S. voter turnout was much lower than many other developed countries.)

There’s a lot of forces that contribute to that dismal rate. One, it’s hard to vote — especially for workers. Only 30 states have laws allowing employees to take time off to vote. And two, voter suppression is rampant. Look at Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election, when records showed thousands of voters were purged from the rolls and others faced hours-long lines.

Black Americans’ voting rights, in particular, have faced attacks: One in 13 Black Americans are unable to vote due to disenfranchisement laws, from strict ID rules to gerrymandering. And this year, all those threats are compounded by a global pandemic.

Regardless, we must show up. Our very democracy hangs in the balance. If it’s been hard for you to vote in the past, there are more groups than ever to help. If it hasn’t been hard, now’s the time to step up to help your neighbors do it. Here’s how to get started.

First, let’s get you registered.

  • How to do it: If you want to vote this year, it’s imperative to check your voter registration status. Head over to Vote.org to see if you’re registered — the whole process takes only 30 seconds. And you can register on that same site.
  • For more detailed info: Every state has different registration processes, and Slate has a helpful how-to guide, outlining instructions and any notable hurdles. In some states, such as California, you can register at the polls on Election Day, but many states like Arizona have early deadlines. Oh, and one last thing: Don’t get creative with your signature on your registration form, as states like Arkansas can reject your ballot later on if the signature doesn’t match the one on file.
  • And some backstory: The U.S. Constitution grants the right to vote to citizens over the age of 18 — and the 19th Amendment, ratified 100 years ago, secured the right to vote for women. (Many black women, of course, had to fight for another five decades to receive the same right.) Rules around voting with a felony record vary from state to state (read more about that here). But just because you’re eligible doesn’t mean that you’re actually registered. So follow the steps above.

If you want to vote by mail

  • How to do it: Request your mail-in ballot over at Vote.org asap. If you’re still waiting on your mail-in ballot to arrive, here’s how you can track it online.
  • For more detailed info: Brookings has called vote-by-mail “the safest and most secure way to vote in a pandemic.” At least three-quarters of American voters will be eligible to vote-by-mail, per The New York Times. Nine states and D.C. will be mailing ballots directly to all voters, while others require you to request a ballot. The New York Times also reports that seven states require an “excuse” for mail-in voting. Per Slate‘s guide, “fear of Covid-19” counts as an excuse in some states like New York, but not all (looking at you, South Carolina). Some states also require you to have a witness sign your absentee ballot. As you can see, there’s a lot of fine print, so reference Slate’s guide for your state’s exact rules. And here’s a list of the deadlines by each state.
  • And some backstory: Voting by mail is a long established practice — often utilized by those requiring absentee ballots who are unable to make it to the polls — but there’s a lot of confusion and concern this year. Still, the Brennan Center has assured Americans that vote-by-mail is secure and essential.

If you will be voting in person

  • How to do it: You can vote in-person early in many states, as well as on Election Day (November 3). Head Count makes it easy to find your polling place. Just click on your state and you’ll be directed right to your board of elections website.
  • For more detailed info: In-person voting has already begun in many states like Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan. Find out if, and when, your state offers it here, and if you can, take advantage of the early bird special — polling locations should be less crowded. Vote.org has compiled a list of every state’s early in-person voting rules. Of course you can also vote in-person on Election Day. Given the Covid-19 pandemic, be sure to read — and follow — the CDC’s guidelines for protecting yourself and others.
  • And some backstory: In-person voting during a pandemic presents unique challenges — but you can still cast your ballot at the polls this election. Just like mail-in voting, each state will be handling voting differently this year. FiveThirtyEight is regularly updating its state-by-state guide, including whether there have been any plans to consolidate or close polls in any state. The guide also specifies the voter ID rules of different states.

Some more important resources for you

  • If you’ve changed your name: Update your registration here34 percent of women could be turned away from the polls for not having proper documents if they recently changed their name.
  • If you’ve moved: You’ll need to take steps to ensure you’re able to vote. For in state moves, update your existing registration. But if you’ve moved out of state, you’ll need to register to vote in that state.
  • If you are disabled: The National Disability Rights Network can help you prepare to vote in your state.
  • If you are a survivor of domestic violence: The National Network to End Domestic Violence has information about state-run Address Confidentiality Programs (ACP) and Confidential Voter Listings, which allow people to vote while protecting their privacy. Read more here.
  • If you need help getting to the polls: Uber and Lyft are offering discounted rides to polling places and ballot drop-off locations. Some organizations, like RideShare2Vote, also help connect you with free transportation to voting sites.
  • If you experience voter interference: Bookmark, read and share the ACLU’s guide on voting rights. It’s got everything from your general rights on Election Day to what to do if someone is interfering with your right to vote.

Want to help on Election Day? Become a poll worker.

  • How to do it: Sign up at Power to the Polls, and read up on how to become a poll worker at your specific state — particularly Kentucky or Georgia, both of which faced major voting challenges during the primaries.
  • For more detailed info: Marie Claire helps clear up a major misconception about these positions: poll workers are not volunteers. The positions are often paid, and some employers are even paying their employees to work at the polls this year.
  • And some backstory: A great way to help with early voting and Election Day is to sign up to be a poll worker — a role that’s particularly needed this year, as officials fear a nationwide shortage of poll workers due to Covid-19. Poll workers help staff local election sites to make sure things run smoothly, checking in voters and helping them understand their ballots. (Of course, they’re also the ones giving out those “I Voted” stickers.) But as Power to the Polls notes, the position is incredibly important given the health risks of large gatherings. These workers will also help voters maintain physical distance and wipe down machines and equipment. They’ll also open and count mail-in ballots.

Help protect other people’s right to vote.

  • How to do it: Brush up on your voting rights through When We All Vote. You can also support an organization like Fair Fight, founded by Stacey Abrams, that’s working to promote free and fair elections across the country. Or join the nonpartisan Native Vote initiative as a coordinator to help encourage active participation among Native voters.
  • For more detailed info: When We All Vote’s guide has easily digestible sections about what to bring to the polls, what to do if you’re still in line when the polls close (stay in line — it’s your right to vote), and how to report voter suppression. Elle shares additional organizations you can support, including those working to stop partisan gerrymandering, which is when voting district lines are redrawn to favor a certain party. You can also read CNN’s explainer on the issue. Plus, read about the barriers to voting facing Native Americans.
  • And some backstory: Voter suppression is a longstanding and widespread problem in the United States, undermining democracy — and disproportionately young people, people of color, incarcerated people, those with disabilities and the elderly. It’s what happens when officials make it harder for some people to vote. This can range from blocking early voting or enacting harmful voter ID laws to gerrymandering or purging names from voter rolls. And it’s a particularly urgent problem for women of color, whose rights are under constant legislative attack and whose voices are routinely shut out of government.

And here are some other ways to help.

You can volunteer with organizations like Rock the Vote and When We All Vote to help get more people registered to vote.

Reach out to voters in swing states — which are the states that could potentially go to either party. (See CNN’s interactive electoral map for more on that.) For instance, you can sign up to write friendly postcards reminding people to get out and vote. (Keep in mind: you need to go through an approval process before you can start.)
Donate to an organization fighting for fair elections – from the ACLU to Common Cause.
Speak with friends or family members on the fence about voting — see HuffPost’s helpful advice about that.