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10 things to watch for while completing your mail-in ballot

10 things to watch for while completing your mail-in ballot

If your head hurts trying to figure out all the do’s and don’ts of mail-in balloting this election cycle, you’re not alone. Worse still, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach because the rules for completing the absentee ballot changes according to the state in which you live. There are 10 things to watch for while completing your mail-in ballot. But, have no fear — we’re here to walk you through the important things to look out for as you complete your ballots, regardless of the state in which you live. Sites like,, and CanIVote run by NASS, the National Association of Secretaries of State, are informative and safe to browse. 

This year, President Trump has thrown a monkey wrench into the election by putting out conflicting messages about when, where, and how to vote. Understandably, many voters are unsure about what to do and when to do it. So, first things first, let’s clear up one thing that may be confusing. Are mail-in, absentee, and vote by mail ballots all the same? The quick and dirty answer is yes.

Because each state makes its own rules governing elections, the terms used can mean the same but vary from state to state. For example, one state may refer to “absentee voting” while another uses “mail-in voting.” In most states, anyone can ask for an absentee ballot, whether able-bodied or not. 

Even the president, who rails almost daily about fraud in absentee voting, votes by mail in his home state of Florida. But there are some states that require an excuse if you want to vote absentee. Many states are changing their rules around mail-in or absentee voting because of the pandemic and the need to keep voters safe. 

The biggest hurdle appears to be returning ballots. Depending on your state, there are several options. You can fill out the ballot and return it by mail, in person, or take it directly to the registrar’s office in your state. There are also designated drop boxes solely for returning absentee ballots. But, here’s where things get sticky. There are a number of states where the issue of these boxes are being fought out in federal court. 

In Texas, there’s a back and forth volley over how many drop boxes can be located in each county. In California, the state Republican Party threw down the gauntlet when party reps started replacing official drop boxes with fakes. Now, the Republicans are fighting for their right to do so in court by saying that they have a legal right to “ballot harvest.” This means that the state’s Republicans believe they can act as a “third party” to return the ballots to the registrar. We’ll keep a watch on that court fight. 

An official Orange County election ballot drop box is shown in Laguna Hills, California, U.S., October 14, 2020. Image Credit: REUTERS/Mike Blake

In the meantime, how does all of this relate to you? Here are 10 things to watch for while completing your mail-in ballot: 

  1. Be vigilant. There are bad actors on the internet scamming for personal information with fake websites. Any state registrar of voters’ office should have a site with a .gov in the website name. Be sure that you are getting the right information from the right source in your state. 
  2. Make sure your state registrar has your current address
  3. Know the deadline when your ballot must be received at your state’s registrar’s office. This is important because some states are in court trying to either extend or reduce that date.
  4. If someone assists you, make sure you know ahead of time exactly how that ballot needs to be witnessed and signed. 
  5. Double-check with your state registrar to stay aware of changes sparked by COVID-19. This could affect where and how you return your ballot.
  6. Follow instructions to the letter! If your ballot instructions require you to use only a blue or black pen, don’t fill in your ballot with a red pen or pencil. 
  7. Sign your ballot in its designated spot.
  8. There’s no online voting during federal elections — at least for now.
  9. Be sure to look at the back of your ballot and return it without smudges or stains.
  10. Some states will allow you to vote in person even if you’ve received an absentee ballot. If your state allows this, don’t forget to bring your absentee ballot to the polls. But, even if you do forget, you might be allowed to vote with a provisional ballot. Check with your state’s registrar’s office to be sure. 

It’s a lot, we know. But, voting is your sacred right as an American. Our democracy makes us stand out from other countries around the world. This year, more than any other, our democracy is being tested. Without correctly filling out our absentee ballots, we risk hundreds if not thousands of ballots being disqualified for minor mistakes. 

History has shown us that elections can be won or lost by a slender thread of votes, one way or another. Will Donald Trump’s misinformation campaign result in thousands of tossed ballots in the presidential election?

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I love telling, reading, and writing stories. I freelance as a writer, editor, and all-around trouble-maker. I live in Atlanta with my dogs, Jaco, and Trane.

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