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What to Do If You're Voting Absentee For the First Time

Everything You Need to Know If This Is Your First Time Voting by Mail

Close up of hand putting voting ballot to mailbox.
Voting is an important part of our democracy, and it's crucial to understand your rights and responsibilities as the 2020 presidential election grows nearer. Traditionally, most eligible voters cast their ballots at polling stations in person on Election Day. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many citizens are looking into absentee voting in order to avoid large crowds and gatherings.

If this is your first time voting absentee, you may have questions about eligibility, process, and safety. Read on for all the answers.

What is absentee voting and who can participate?

Absentee and early voting are the official processes that let you vote by mail in the United States. Voting online is not allowed in federal elections, so if you're not voting in person, absentee voting is the best alternative.

Absentee voting is legal in all 50 states, though different restrictions can apply depending on where you're registered. Many states are also changing regulations because of the pandemic, so it's important to check your state's official election website for eligibility requirements.

Some states require an official excuse to vote absentee — in the past, acceptable reasoning has included sickness or disability, studying out of state, or travel during the election. However, some states are now allowing COVID-19 as an acceptable excuse for all residents. You can check if your state requires an excuse to vote absentee and how eligibility has changed for 2020 so you're prepared.

How do I get my absentee ballot?

Some states automatically send absentee ballots to all registered voters — you can find out if your state does so on your state's official election website. If your state isn't automatically sending out a ballot, you'll need to request one. Make sure to include the correct "mail to" address if it's different than your home address. This is where your ballot will be sent.

How do I fill in the bubbles on my ballot?

Once your ballot arrives, you'll want to fill it out the same way you would at a polling site. This means filling in the entire bubble next to your chosen candidate using a black or dark-blue pen. Don't put an X, circle the candidate, or fill it in halfway. This is important so the machine can read your vote.

What do I do with my ballot once I've filled it out?

Your absentee ballot will come in an envelope with many other documents and papers, and it can be confusing to know what to do with them. Luckily, there will be instructions that should help clarify, and it's important to follow them closely. Though it could look slightly different from one state to the next, here are the general guidelines.

You'll receive more than one envelope. One is called a "secrecy" or "security" envelope, another is the return envelope, and in some states, you'll also get an affidavit envelope. After filling out your ballot, seal it in the secrecy envelope. In some states, like New York, you'll sign and date this envelope before placing it all in the return envelope.

In other states, like Alabama, you'll get an affidavit envelope as well. This will have a printed affidavit on the outside of the envelope you'll need to fill out before returning your ballot. You'll put your sealed secrecy envelope in the affidavit envelope, seal it, then seal that envelope in the return envelope to send back to your state government.

Where do I mail it and do I need a stamp?

If you're planning on mailing your ballot, you'll be sending it to your county board of elections office. The USPS generally recommends sending it at least seven days before the election. If you are sending it by mail, some states use prepaid envelopes, others do not. You'll need to check your state's official election website for full details about postage, though there should also be instructions included with the absentee ballot.

You may also be allowed to drop off your ballot at the county board of elections office, bring it to an early-voting poll site, or bring it to a poll site on Election Day, all depending on your state.

Are there any deadlines I should be aware of?

Like most other elements of absentee voting, deadlines vary state to state. This list shows ballot deadlines for all 50 states, including when it needs to be delivered to the county board of elections.

Are there any other best practices?

In general, the most important thing to remember is that absentee voting varies from state to state, and you'll need to check your state's official election website for specific guidelines. When you get your absentee ballot, make sure you're filling out all bubbles correctly and carefully following the included instructions. Then be sure to mail your ballot as soon as possible to ensure it's delivered on time.

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