The sun caresses your cheek just after 7 a.m. on Election Day, waking you like a tender lover. You slept perfectly. Birds flit around the room, bringing you clothes from the dresser. How did they get inside? You don’t care. You’ve never looked better. The trip to your polling place is practically a dream, and you vote with ease (in all the races, not just the big ones). Outside again, the sun wraps you in a warm embrace. Ah, democracy.
Unfortunately, this idyllic portrayal of Election Day is unrealistic, and not just because the sun is an emotionless ball of hot plasma that will incinerate you if you get too close. In more normal times, people already struggled to take time off from work, polling machines broke down, and it was hard for many to even get to the polls. Add the COVID-19 pandemic into the mix and, well, you could run into any number of problems.
There’s one easy solution: Vote early. Not only will this benefit you by allowing you to cast your ballot at your leisure weeks before the election, but it will help your community, too. You’re one less person poll workers will have to usher through the process while adhering to whatever health precautions your state has put in place, and you can’t contract or spread the novel coronavirus at the polls if you’re not there to begin with.
It’s convenient for you
During Kentucky’s primary election in June, the state opened about 200 polling locations, a fraction of the 3,700 it usually uses. The state’s governor, Andy Beshear, said this was to help keep election workers safe from COVID-19. This decision went hand-in-hand with a bipartisan agreement to offer all registered voters the chance to vote by mail-in absentee ballot or by dropping one off early, according to the Louisville Courier Journal.
The United States is a big country, but when millions of people try to do the same thing on the same day, there’s bound to be issues—especially given the complications caused by the pandemic. Just imagine if the more than 200,000 people who voted in Jefferson County, Kentucky, during the primary had actually shown up at the county’s only polling location. They each would’ve likely had less than a minute to complete their ballot for everyone to get through during normal hours.
Jefferson County, the most populous one in the Bluegrass State, will have eight polling locations open on Election Day, and your state may decide to do something similar. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example, recently signed a law that lets counties offer fewer in-person voting options. He has also ordered that ballots be mailed to every registered Golden State voter.
Depending on your state, you may have up to 50 days (Pennsylvania) to fill out a ballot and get it to your local election office. That’s enough time to read the directions repeatedly, forget the paperwork on your kitchen table three times, and still manage to deliver it on your way to the grocery store with weeks to spare.
It could keep you and others from getting sick
Whether you’ve got a newborn baby at home, are taking care of a vulnerable loved one, or simply don’t want to risk unknowingly spreading COVID-19 throughout your community, there are a number of health-related reasons you might want to avoid voting in person this year.
Even states that have been quite restrictive in how they allow people to vote understand that the pandemic has changed the game. Connecticut, which requires voters to show up at their polling place on election day unless they’re incapable due to illness, physical disability, or their religion, has extended absentee voting to all eligible residents, for example.
If you do have to go, states are taking precautions. Social distancing, regular cleaning, hand sanitizer, and masks are pretty standard fare, though it may be hard to find details about what your state is doing. The Centers for Disease Control and Preventions has also compiled a list of coronavirus-related recommendations for election officials, poll workers, and voters, but you can ultimately only control what you do.
So unless you lack access to internet or mail, rely on a voting machine to cast your ballot, or have to physically go to the polls for some other reason, it may not be worth it. Get an absentee ballot, cast your vote far ahead of time, and avoid the hassle.
How to vote early
Every state handles its own elections, so early voting rules vary from state to state, just like voter registration procedures.
If you want to vote by mail, your best bet is to visit your state or local election office’s website. Now, that can be hard to find, but the federal government has gathered every state’s election website in one place. Simply select your state from the drop-down menu and it’ll take you to the proper page. If that doesn’t have what you need, the National Association of Secretaries of State has a similar page with a dropdown menu that will bring you to your state’s page for absentee and/or early voting. These pages should also have other important information about early voting.
You may find other websites that claim to show the early voting and absentee ballot rules for your state, but it’s super-important to double-check that information on your state’s website. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much, and your state’s official communication channels will always have the most up-to-date information on how it’s handling the election.
If your state offers the option to drop your ballot in a dropbox at the election office, do it.
“That way you know for sure that your ballot was delivered,” says Gabe Rosenberg, communications director and general counsel for Connecticut’s Secretary of State. “You dropped it off; you know it got there in time.”
He says this is particularly important in the Nutmeg State, where your ballot must be received on election day to be counted—it can’t just be postmarked.
Keep in mind that if your state mailed you a ballot, you may be required to bring it with you if you decide to vote in person. California is one of those states, and if you show up without the one they sent you, you might have to fill out a provisional ballot, which will be counted once the election office confirms your eligibility and that you haven’t already voted.
What to remember when casting your ballot
The most important piece of advice you’ll need when voting, early or not, is to follow directions carefully. No matter how unnecessary a portion of the process may seem to you, do exactly as they say. For example, don’t stuff your whole family’s ballots into one envelope, as that could invalidate them. So could forgetting a signature.
And to help relieve the burden on your local and state election officials, you should vote as early as you can. California counties can start dealing with mail-in ballots 29 days before the election, but even if your state waits longer or doesn’t tally them until election day, it may still help your peace of mind to get it in early.
So don’t delay. Head to your state’s elections website, spend some time learning how to vote early, and check “participate in democracy” off your to-do list. Then spend Election Day doing something else. Like getting those damn birds out of your bedroom.