The number of Americans voting by mail is expected to double compared to 2016 amid worries of COVID-19 transmission at the polls. (For what it’s worth, in early July, Zeke Emanuel, a bioethicist and former Obama administration health adviser, said that voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic is about as safe as going to the grocery store.)
But other voters ― both Democrats and Republicans ― are reluctant to cast their ballots by mail, their doubts fueled by President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that mail-in voting will lead to a “rigged” election and by some Democrats’ accusations that the newly installed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, is plotting to sabotage the vote in favor of Trump.
The stakes are high. If you’re voting in person on Nov. 3 — or early, your best bet to avoid crowds ― you’re very likely concerned about making sure your vote is counted.
What should you do if you have to wait in line for hours to vote, like people did during Georgia’s primary election in June? What if the voting machines don’t work or poll workers give you incorrect information about casting your ballot?
You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers.
Below, voting rights experts share eight problems you could encounter as voting gets underway and what to do to ensure your voting experience is as hiccup-free as possible.
What if I go to my polling location and they say I’m not registered there?
Avoid this issue altogether by making sure you’ve registered to vote at vote.org. While you’re at it, double-check that your address is correct. Do all of this prior to your state’s voter registration deadline. (For many states, that is Oct. 5.)
You should also double-check your precinct location prior to voting, especially since COVID-19 may force some precincts to close or relocate, according to Cecilia Aguilera, a counsel at the Fair Elections Center, a national, nonpartisan voting rights and election reform organization.
“If you have any issues voting by mail or in person on or before Election Day, call the nonpartisan voter protection hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE.”
If you’re voting early, this is going to be less of an issue for you.
“Many states that offer early voting allow voters to vote at any early voting center so that they don’t need to worry about voting at the wrong precinct,” Aguilera said.
You can cast a provisional ballot if you vote at the wrong location on Election Day in most states. But given the many complications that can arise with provisional votes, requesting a provisional ballot should always be your last resort, said Leigh Chapman, the voting rights program director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
“If you vote with a provisional ballot, follow up with your local elections office to make sure that you provide the additional information to make sure your vote is counted,” she said.
If you have any issues voting by mail or in person on or before Election Day, call the nonpartisan voter protection hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE. (1-866-687-8683).
What if a polling place opens late or closes early, claims to have run out of ballots, or the machines break down?
If you encounter any issues like this, contact the nonpartisan voter protection hotline immediately at 1-866-OUR-VOTE.
“As a general rule, if a voter is in line at the time her polling place closes, they have a right to vote,” said Michelle Kanter Cohen, a senior counsel at the Fair Elections Center. “Otherwise, this is another area where early voting can help avoid issues. In the rare chance that an early voting site opens late, closes early, or runs out of ballots, thus preventing the voter from casting a ballot, they can return on another early voting day.”
What if I have to stand in line for hours to cast my vote?
Again, you can do your part to minimize lines now, weeks before Election Day, by voting early, whether you decide to vote in person or by mail.
Still, if you are stuck in line on Election Day, bring a snack and stay in line!
“As long as you are in line before the polls close and stay in line, you have the right to cast a ballot, even if that’s after the time the polls are scheduled to close,” said Molly McGrath, a voting rights campaign strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“As long as you are in line before the polls close and stay in line, you have the right to cast a ballot.”
For those with disabilities worried about lines, many states have laws that allow voters with mobility issues or physical disabilities to move to the front of the line, according to Aguilera.
“If someone has concerns about long lines, though, they should contact their local election officials ahead of time to determine their options,” she said. “They may be able to find out when the volume of voters tends to be lowest, and about other options like early voting or curbside voting. If a voter is in line by closing time, she has a right to vote.”
What if a poll worker challenges my eligibility to vote?
This is extremely rare. If you’re not able to prove your eligibility but believe you properly registered, you have the right to cast a provisional ballot, which will count once election officials determine your registration and eligibility. Generally, you should be fine if you verify your voting status, your address and your voting place.
If you’re worried, you can bring your voter registration card and a document proving you live at the address listed on your registration, Kanter Cohen suggests. If you’re challenged, “call the election protection hotline,” preferably before leaving your polling place, she advised.
What if I’m disabled and my polling place hasn’t provided adequate assistance?
One in five people eligible to vote has a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, requires that voter registration and voting be accessible to people with disabilities and that poll workers assist voters with disabilities if they need help.
“It’s worth noting that voters with disabilities are allowed to bring in the person of their choice to assist them at the polls (so long as that person is not their employer or an agent of their employer or an agent or officer of their union),” said McGrath. “They can also request reasonable accommodations from poll workers.”
For more information on fair access to voting, contact the National Disability Rights Network-affiliated organization in your state.
“Every state, jurisdiction and polling place [is] different, so this type of personalized assistance is going to be the most effective,” Chapman said.
What if I encounter a poll-watcher who seems to be trying to intimidate voters?
A poll watcher is a person appointed to observe the conduct of an election on behalf of a candidate, a political party or the proponents or opponents of a measure.
But poll watchers are not supposed to interfere in the voting process, aside from reporting issues to polling place authorities and party officials. Anyone who tries to “intimidate, threaten, or coerce” individuals to interfere with their right to vote can face up to a year in prison under federal law against voter intimidation.
Tell a poll worker if you feel intimidated and report the incident to your local election officials, whose offices will be open on Election Day. Also, call the nonpartisan voter protection hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE.
What if I’m told I can’t cast my absentee ballot in person and should have mailed it?
Chapman said that in most states, vote-by-mail ballots don’t always have to be mailed back. They can also be dropped off at a dropbox, at an early voting location, or at an in-person voting location on Election Day. To find a list of local election offices, you can search your state board of elections website or your state’s secretary of state website.
What if I make a mistake on my ballot?
Given how different this election will be logistically, it’s important to carefully read the instructions that come with your ballot prior to marking it.
Many jurisdictions have a “cure” process wherein they contact a voter if their signature or ID is missing, does not match, or if there are other reasons for rejecting the ballot package, Aguilera said.
But be your own fact-checker first.
Before submitting a ballot, voters should “double- and triple-check that they have properly enclosed their ballots in any secrecy envelopes accompanying their ballot, sealed all envelopes, provided all of the required information, signed everywhere that they need to, and depending on their state, that they have a witness signature if it’s required there,” she said.
If you make a mistake or have any questions, you can call and ask your local election official for a replacement ballot.
“We are strongly encouraging all voters who plan to vote by mail to request their mail-in ballots now (if required by state law) and complete and submit their ballots as soon as they receive them so that they are received on time and any issues can be addressed before Election Day,” Aguilera said.
For more information on how to vote, head over to our TurboVote module.