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6 Steps to Ensure Your Mail-In Ballot Gets Counted in 2020

Pandemic makes alternatives to in-person voting more important than ever

A pile of ballots that have been mailed

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

En español | A record number of Americans will be casting their ballots this year from the COVID-free safety of their homes. Many will be voting this way for the first time.

As of October 20, more than 20 million Americans had already voted via an absentee, or mail-in, ballot. During voting in 2016 and 2018, about 1 percent of absentee ballots were rejected, according to a report by the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission (EAC). If those percentages hold, hundreds of thousands of ballots could go uncounted this year and potentially change the outcome of the presidential election in key battleground states.

Here's how the experts say you can avoid the most common mistakes to make sure your vote will count. These are general guidelines. Refer to the AARP voting guide for your state for detailed information on the rules where you live.

Follow the instructions

You might be able to get away with just glancing at the instructions when you're putting together that new piece of furniture you ordered online, but the stakes are higher when it comes to your ballot.

"It's really important to follow the instructions,” says Amber McReynolds, founder of the National Vote at Home Institute and one of the authors of Colorado's vote by mail law. (Colorado, along with California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia, mailed ballots to all registered voters this year; not just to voters who requested one.)

The instructions will be very specific and must be followed to the letter, McReynolds says. For example: “If it says use black or blue ink, or fill in just the oval (on an optical scanner ballot), that's really, really important."

This is not a case of once you've seen one ballot you've seen them all. Elections in the United States are run by states and counties and cities, so ballots can be different in every jurisdiction and so will the instructions.

Sign your ballot

While ballots will vary from state to state and sometimes county to county, what is common is that somewhere you will have to sign it — often on the outside of the envelope — so election officials can verify your identity. When they receive your ballot and begin to process it, election workers will check that the signature on the envelope or flap matches the signature on your voter registration record.

In 2016, the EAC found that 20 percent of the ballots that were rejected were thrown out because the signature on the ballot didn't match the one on file.

Avoid stray marks

In most states, ballots will consist of multiple pages with many contests beyond just the presidential race. There may be races for members of Congress, state and local judges, ballot initiatives and local charter changes.

Make sure you've made up your mind before you make any marks on your ballot. A stray mark or putting a check in the oval instead of filling it in completely can invalidate your ballot.

If you do make a mistake, contact your local elections office to learn how you can get another ballot. But you can avoid that step by filling it out right the first time.

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Determine witness requirements

In most states, you won't need a witness. But, if you vote in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma or Wisconsin, you will need someone to witness your ballot. North Carolina reduced the number of witnesses it requires from two to one.

If you don't have a witness signature on your ballot in those states, then your vote won't count. Make sure to carefully follow the instructions so the witness you select qualifies and he or she signs in the right place.

Because of COVID-19, the witness requirements in Alaska, Minnesota, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia have been waived for the 2020 election.

Vote early

Probably the most important advice: Vote as early as possible.

In most states there are a couple of ways you can get your mail ballot to election officials:

  • Drop it in the mail. “We usually recommend mailing at least seven to eight days prior to the election to make sure that it gets there on time,” McReynolds says. Election Day is Nov. 3.
  • Bring it to a drop box. Most states offer drop boxes where you can bring your ballot. In many states these locked boxes are monitored, either by an election worker or surveillance cameras.

More than half the states allow someone other than the voter — a family member or caregiver, for example — to bring a ballot to the drop box. Contact your local elections office to find your nearest drop box and whether you have to personally put your ballot in the drop box.

Track your ballot

Most states now offer online ballot tracking. Many states have what is called a “notice and cure process.” That's when elections officials spot a mistake in your ballot and contact you to let you know and allow you to fix the mistake.

The “cure” varies. Sometimes the election officials will just let you know your ballot was rejected and let you cast a new one. Or, you may be asked to provide proof of your identity, which sometimes means you'll have to go to the election office.

That's yet another reason to vote early: If you do make a mistake, there will be time to fix it.

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