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2020 Voters’ Calendar—The General Election Starts in August

This Voters’ Calendar will stretch our civic attention span to make high-turnout elections a task that mere mortals can perform, not a superhuman feat that tests voters.

Voting in 2020’s fall elections has never been more important. But now that America is in a pandemic, voters – especially in population centers – must make a plan to vote and follow it.

Before the pandemic, we could linger in stores. Now, we have to be more focused. Voting this fall is no different. Voters have three options:

1. Voting with ballots mailed to their homes
2. Early Voting in person
3. Election Day voting in person

With these three options come a second set of decisions. If you receive a ballot by mail, do you have to return it by mail? Or can you return it in person? If so, where? The ballot return choices typically are Drop Boxes, Early Voting sites, Election Day polling places, and county election offices. Every state and county has a mix of these options – or not – for voters.

The good news from 2020’s primaries is that Americans are determined to vote. This proved as true for those voting mailed-out ballots as for in-person voters. The primary experiences allow us to offer advice for the fall – including what to do when something goes wrong.

Two notions we can embrace right off the bat to empower voters:

First, change our language – from “November Election” and “Election Day” and “November 3rd” to “fall election,” and “General Election.” We must stop aiming at one single day to exercise our voting rights. There is a whole voting season and three possible ways to cast your vote: By-Mail, Early in-person, and Election Day in-person.

When the pandemic erupted, voting by mail was touted as the best solution. Yet the 2020 primary showed us how many people still prefer to vote in person. Whatever method you choose, you need a plan or you’ll fall prey to problems. Make a plan to vote this fall – and follow it.

To help, we’ve made a Voters’ Calendar for Voting Season. It starts in August. It stretches our attention span so high-turnout elections can become a task mere mortals can perform instead of a superhuman endurance test.

AUGUST is Check Your Registration month. Starting August 5 (90 days before November 3), it is federally illegal to purge anyone from the voter rolls. New voters can be added but none can be removed. Therefore, starting August 5, check your voter registration information on your state or county election websites. If you’re there, you’re registered!

Here’s a link that gets you to a government-to-government website. Beware disinformation. Some help sites are great, some not. But when you deal directly with the websites of the people running your election – your state and local election officials – your information comes from those legally accountable for running a functional election. They keep your records, know the rules, and count your ballot.

If you’re not on the rolls, re-register! If your name or address are outdated or incorrect, update them! When everything’s in order take a screenshot and file it with time and date. (Google “How do I take a screenshot with my phone?”) Help other voters do the same who don’t have online access. Start with your family. If you moved recently, it’s especially important to check and update your registration. Students, that’s you!

Questions? The U.S. Vote Foundation website has contact information for every local election official. Go to the source; the officials running your jurisdiction’s election.

SEPTEMBER is Order Your Mail Ballot month. Decide which way of voting – a mailed-out ballot, Early, or Election Day – is right for you! Ponder – then make a plan.

Maybe you think you won’t need a mail-in ballot. But what if you do? A delayed application can get caught in a paperwork backlog – a lesson from the primaries. Order that mail-in ballot as soon as your voter registration information is correct; everything from your election office, including your mail ballot, will go to that name and address.

Find out how to apply for the mail ballot (Google or use link above for local government website) and follow directions carefully. Some states let you apply entirely online. Others require that you print out the application, fill it in, sign it, and mail back. Unfortunately, every state has slightly different rules. Don’t procrastinate. You want to be early, near the front of this line.

If voting by mail seems confusing, plan on voting in person. That’s Early Voting (several days out) or Election Day. Your state, county or city election website will have locations and hours.

OCTOBER is Vote Your Mail Ballot Month – or If You Want to Vote in Person, Keep Your Ballot to Take with You Just in Case. Mailed-out ballots get issued in late September or early October. Know when to expect yours. (See your state or county website.) If you don’t get your ballot, call the elections office. Sometimes they can send you a replacement. Act early.

When you do receive your mail ballot, either vote it ASAP and follow your plan to return it – or keep it, envelopes and all, in a safe place. Before signing your name, do two things. First, look at the way your name is on the ballot package mailed to you. Copy that exactly, including a middle initial if it’s there. And look at your driver’s license to see how you signed your signature. You want your name on the ballot return envelope to match so it won’t get rejected in some states.

Then decide how you want to return your ballot. Check local rules about if and where you can drop off a voted mail ballot in person. The reliability of the Post Office, which is under-funded, and the coronavirus, worries us all. If you want to help by avoiding the mail and using a drop-off option instead (Drop Box, Early Voting Center) know that the earlier you drop off your ballot, the greater the chance of your vote being part of the early Election Night returns.

NOVEMBER is Last Chance Month: The Endgame.  If you vote on Election Day, expect a line. Especially in a blue epicenter in a red state.

What if something goes wrong? Like my mail ballot didn’t arrive or arrived late? Every voter should have a back-up plan. If you haven’t gotten your mailed-out ballot by October 26, which is the Monday eight days before November 3rd’s Election Day, plan to shift gears. Find the Early Voting sites in your county and go there and vote. Don’t wait until November 3.

States have different rules on what kind of ballot you will be given. At the check-in desk, poll workers in some states can cancel your status as a mail voter and give you regular ballot. That is the best scenario, because once cast it will be counted. Your job is done as a voter.

If you received your ballot that week—or haven’t returned it already—you might want to bring it, unvoted, to an in-person voting center (Early Voting is better than Election Day) and try to “surrender” it – meaning, exchange it for a regular ballot. Some states will let you do this. Others won’t. If they don’t, you will be asked to fill out a provisional ballot form and given a provisional ballot.

(A provisional ballot, like a mailed-out ballot, isn’t counted until the voter’s information on the outside envelope is verified by election officials at the county headquarters. However, mail envelopes are processed first and provisionals, last, often weeks after the election – which is why you want to avoid them. If there’s an issue with any envelope signature not matching county records, voters have to be contacted by officials to return in a short window to fix it. Most don’t.)

If you bring a mailed-out ballot to a voting site and it’s really busy, see if they have a drop box or drop off option and consider filling it out and returning it that way. The dropped-off mail ballot will be counted long before any provisional ballots. You can always ask a poll worker if you filled out the mail ballot envelope correctly. Don’t guess. Ask questions.

This is voter PPE – Personal Protective Education – in the time of pandemic. Voting Season is not just about November 3rd anymore, not for vote-counting (it might take weeks) and not for vote-casting. Protection of your voting rights starts three months out. Plan to vote and follow your plan. We all know why this election matters.

The “Surrender Rule.” What is It? Why You Need to Know.

By Steven Rosenfeld and Mimi Kennedy

A troubling pattern has been seen in 2020’s pandemic primaries. Many voters who expected to receive a mail-in ballot never received it. Or it arrived just before Election Day and they worried that it might not get back to the election office by their state’s deadline to count it.

So, in state after state, voters who had requested mail ballots have flocked to polling places to vote in person. Since there were fewer voting sites, due to COVID-19 poll worker shortages, long lines piled up. Voters waited for hours. And then they may have faced another delay, checking in, due to a problem that almost no-one had warned them about.

Their names were listed on the sign-in roster as absentee voters because they had requested a mailed-out ballot for the election. Thus, in many states, the county (and poll worker) could not automatically let them have a regular in-person ballot. By law, the voters had to be considered as having already received their ballot for this election. They were given a provisional ballot, to be verified at their county election office after most of the other ballots were counted.

What can the voter and poll worker do in this situation? This scenario will expand in the fall due to the expansion of mail voting in a pandemic.

This moment is covered by what some states informally call the “Surrender Rule.”

The Surrender Rule
In some states, if you did receive your mail ballot but prefer to vote in person, you can surrender—or exchange—your unvoted mail ballot package, envelopes and all, for a regular ballot at an in-person voting site. This can be an Early Voting location or an Election Day polling place. Some states require these voters to show a state-issued photo ID to confirm their identity. (Other states will only give a voter a provisional ballot at this point.)

If you’ve applied for, but didn’t receive, a mailed-out ballot, you have fewer choices. You should go to an in-person site to vote. Bring your ID and ask for a regular ballot. Some states will give it to you. Others will not. If not, you’ll be given a provisional ballot.

What does that mean? You’ll fill out an envelope, sometimes a ballot application form with your voter registration information, and your ballot. After you vote, the ballot will be put into the envelope and set aside to be verified and counted later. If election officials find that no mailed-out ballot was returned in your name, your provisional ballot will be counted, as long as your name, address and signature match your voter registration.

Election officials typically say a provisional ballot is the fail-safe backup. So why are we urging voters who will experience frustrations with voting by mail to ask for a regular ballot? Because a regular ballot, once cast, is anonymous and automatically counted. Provisional ballot envelopes can be rejected in the election office, far from the voter, over typos and signature mismatches.

Election officials are supposed to contact voters to “cure” problems with the information and signature on ballot envelopes before rejecting those voters. But the election winners and losers may already be decided. They may not reach out, retired officials say. A voter won’t know.

In-person voting locations—Early and on Election Day—are where voters can try to surrender their ballots and get a regular ballot. Early Voting tends to be less busy than Election Day polls. Your state’s “Surrender Rule” or lack of it will govern what kind of fall 2020 ballot you’ll get.

Basics for Voters in 2020
Let’s review basic steps for voting and then return to more nuanced surrender rule scenarios.

Every voter should have a plan to vote this fall. First, they have to be registered as voters. And they have to make sure that their registration information (name and address) is up to date. Then they have to decide on how they will vote: by mail, Early in-person, or Election Day in-person.

Each of these three choices require knowing either where to go to vote or how to return a mailed-out ballot. Some states let you return a voted mail ballot to Early Voting centers, depositing it in a drop boxes, or bring it to county offices. Most states, but not all, let you drop off a mailed-out ballot at Election Day polls. Knowing these variables is part of making your plan to vote.

The first step is registering. All states except North Dakota require voters to register. Some do it automatically when you get a driver’s license. The National Association of Secretaries of State has a Can-I-Vote website with links to state and local government election sites. There you can find forms, election office contact numbers, voting sites, ways to check and update your voter registration and ways to apply for an absentee ballot.

Some states let you register and vote at the same time. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have Election Day registration or what’s called Same Day Registration. From west to east, these states are Hawaii, California, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, the District of Columbia., Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. (New Mexico and North Carolina allow voter registration at Early Voting sites, but not on Election Day.)

In some states, Election Day registration is called Conditional Registration. You end up voting what is called a Conditional Ballot. It is put into an envelope, but typically counted long before provisional ballots. If you live in one of these same-day states, take a state-issued photo ID with you if you plan to do same-day registration.

Make Sure Your Voter Roll Info is Correct
As a precaution, all voters should go to their county election website—reached via the Can-I-Vote link—to make sure their voter registration information (name, address) is up to date. That step is very important, especially if you want to vote with a mailed-out ballot. Most states are not sending all of their voters a ballot. They are sending an application to vote from home. Others are not sending anything. Either way, your registration file address is how officials find you.

After registration, apply for a mail ballot, just in case COVID-19 forces you to vote at home. In most states, you can’t do this at the same time that you register. That’s because election officials have to make sure that you are on their voter lists before sending you a mailed ballot application. This means that new voters have to have a plan to register and how to get their ballot.

Don’t delay. States have different rules. A few western states will send a ballot to all of their “active” registered voters—those who voted recently. Check your voter registration record. You want to see your name and current address. If you do not see your name or there’s an “inactive” designation, call your local election office to find out how to become an “active” voter. Some states are only sending mailed-out ballot applications and ballots to “active” voters. (Here is a nationwide directory of local election officials). Sometimes updating your registration information or applying for a ballot suffices. Be sure.

In the pandemic, many states are making it easier to apply to vote from home. As of mid-July, 22 states have online portals to apply, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Here are links to the state portals that allow voters to find and fill out the forms online: Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia. Other states and Washington, D.C., let you start this process online, but you must download and print the forms, fill them out, sign, and return by mail or fax. Yes–more arduous. Links to those states’ portals are here: District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming.

The Surrender Rule
If applying to vote from home seems too complex, don’t do it. Instead, plan to vote in person early or at an Election Day site. During 2020 primaries, thousands of voters wanted to vote from home using mailed-out ballots but couldn’t, because their ballots arrived too late or not at all.

This conundrum brings us back to the Surrender Rule. You’ve gone through all of these steps, yet you never got your ballot. Or it arrived a day or two before Election Day and you don’t dare mail it back, fearing it will fall through the cracks. What should you do?

Let’s review the options. If you have the ballot, take it with you to exchange, unvoted, for a regular ballot. Should your voting location be backed up, consider filling out your ballot if they let you drop mail ballots off there. In any case, go vote, even if it’s with a provisional ballot.

There’s a third scenario that was seen in large numbers in the pandemic primaries. Perhaps you mailed back your ballot a few days before Election Day but worried that it wouldn’t arrive in time. (If it’s been postmarked by the state’s deadline, it should be counted.) Many worried voters went to an Early Voting or Election Day site to cast an in-person ballot.

If that’s your situation, ask the poll workers to check if your mail ballot has—or hasn’t—arrived. They may be able to cancel it and let you to vote a regular ballot. In some states they check to see if your mail ballot was received back. If so, you’re done; you’ve voted. In a majority of states, you will likely be given a provisional ballot. The election office will count whichever ballot they process first. If your mail ballot does come in, that will be counted. Otherwise, they will count your provisional.

Either way, be prepared to meet the Surrender Rule, or the lack of it, if you’re thinking of voting from home this fall but end up going to the polls. In the spring and summer primaries, tens of thousands of people across the country ran into problems with getting a mailed-out ballot in a timely manner. In many states, election officials were swamped with mail ballot applications, mailings, and processing the return ones. Due to COVID-19, states weren’t able to train poll workers sufficiently on many complexities, including how to handle voters who requested mail ballots but showed up at their voting site – with or without the mail ballot in hand.

In Conclusion
If your mailed-out ballot arrives late or not at all, plan to vote in person. Don’t wait too long. Just do it. If the ballot arrives late and you don’t want to use it, take it, and all its packaging, with you to the voting site. No matter what unfolds – you surrender an unvoted ballot for a regular ballot or fill out that mailed-out ballot and turn it in – you’ll be prepared. If you didn’t get your expected mailed-out ballot, grab your photo ID, find an in-person voting site, and follow their directions.

In all of these scenarios, don’t give up. The stakes are too high in the 2020 election. The best outcomes depend on high voter turnout and wide margins of victory that cannot be refuted. Voters must plan to vote, follow those plans, and keep going if something goes wrong.

Be A Poll Worker This Fall!

Research by Hannah Ji

One recurring pattern in 2020’s primaries is the need for poll workers at in-person voting sites. The pandemic has caused a poll worker exodus, because most poll workers are older people who are vulnerable to COVID-19. This shortage has led to greatly reducing the number of in-person voting sites in state after state, as well as last-minute closures of polling places. Those are some of the big causes behind the long lines seen on Election Day.

The solution is recruiting a new generation of people working the polls. Poll workers get paid, but, more importantly, they help their neighbors to vote. They also help keep a building block of the political system running smoothly, which helps the public accept the results of elections.

What follows is a chart with details of how to become a poll worker in your state.



  1. Become a registered voter in your state.
  2. Register to become a poll worker: Many states either have an online application and/or require you to call your local county’s election official directly.
  3. Receive training – specifics varies by state.

Take note: Often, you can only be a poll worker in the county where you have registered to vote. That rule means that many students and people who moved since registering to vote have to update their registration information. In most states, those updates can be done online at county election websites.

There are very few ways that citizens can exercise power in the United States. One is serving on juries. Another is joining the military. Another is voting. Poll workers are on the inside of that process. They try to steer the ship of the state in the rough and noisy waters of elections. That’s especially important in the fall of 2020. Join them.

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