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A step-by-step guide on how to vote by mail in the election

Voting experts offer guidance on how to vote by mail as many states expand access to accommodate voters during the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo illustration of man holding mail in ballot
TODAY illustration
/ Source: TMRW

As the Nov. 3 election approaches, state and local governments across the country have to determine how to safely facilitate voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. More than 35 states have expanded access to mail-in voting, which has been openly criticized by President Donald Trump, in an effort to reduce anticipated crowd sizes at polling places.

In April, Trump tweeted that statewide mail-in voting has “tremendous potential for voter fraud” and “doesn’t work out well for Republicans,” but Daniel Thompson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, said evidence suggests otherwise.

Based on existing research, Thompson said there is very little reason to believe the expansion of voting by mail leads to substantial increases in fraud. Additionally, in a paper published in April, Thompson and three other scholars found that voting by mail does not favor Republicans or Democrats.

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“In normal times, expansions of vote by mail have not benefited either party,” Thompson told TMRW. “We have very solid evidence that that just isn’t the case.”

TMRW spoke with Amber McReynolds, the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, and Andrea Hailey, the CEO of, about how you can cast your vote from the safety of your own home.

Register to vote

In order to vote by mail, you have to first be registered to vote.

Hailey said it only takes about two minutes to register through, which is a nonpartisan nonprofit that works to provide Americans with easy access to the information and tools they need to vote.

“We take you through the workflow for your state,” she told TMRW, “but you’ve got to produce your name and where you live and go through the registration process.”

Even if you think you are registered to vote, Hailey said people should check and verify their status.

“Once you register, go ahead and verify a little bit before the election, too, just to be extra safe and extra vigilant,” she said.

Check your state's policies on voting by mail

Every state allows for at least some form of mail-in voting, but some states require voters to provide a valid excuse in order to do so.

As of Aug. 31, nine states will count COVID-19 as a valid excuse for mail-in voting, six states require an excuse that is not related to COVID-19 and 35 states and Washington, D.C. do not require any excuse in order to vote by mail.

NBC News launched a guide called Plan Your Vote in August that allows voters to access information about their state’s early in-person and mail-in voting policies.

McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit working to expand access to mail-in voting nationally, said there are a number of websites voters can use to check their state’s policies as well. She said, which is run by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Can I Vote, which is run by the National Association of Secretaries of State, and third party groups, like Rock the Vote or, are all great resources.

Request your ballot as soon as possible

Once you have reviewed your state’s policies and confirmed you are eligible to vote by mail, both McReynolds and Hailey said you should request your ballot as soon as possible.

“This year, we have to all walk and chew gum at the same time, as we have to vote during the middle of (a pandemic),” Hailey said. “And to make sure that nobody has to choose between their health and their democracy, it's really important to move up the timeline by which you are thinking about a plan to vote.”

You can request your ballot by clicking on the button that says “vote by mail” on the website. Depending on the state you live in, you may be able to request your ballot directly through, but if not, the site will direct you to the appropriate state website.

McReynolds said some states also allow voters to track the status of their ballots once they have been requested.

Follow the instructions to fill out your ballot

Once you receive your ballot, fill it out by carefully following the instructions it arrives with.

“If it says fill in the oval, fill in the oval,” McReynolds told TMRW. “Don't checkmark, don't circle names, but fill in the oval.”

Additionally, Hailey said that though it may seem overwhelming to sit down and look up everything that appears on the ballot, it’s an important part of the process and helps people understand what’s happening in their communities.

Follow instructions to return your ballot

After you fill out your ballot, you need to return it in time in order for it to be counted. Instructions on how to return your ballot will also arrive with it in the mail.

“Whether it's a state that offers prepaid postage or a state where you can drop it off, just make sure you really follow the deadlines for mailing it back in or dropping it off to make sure it makes it in time,” McReynolds said. “We're recommending that people don't mail it back within eight days (of the election) — you should drop it off.”

Avoid common mistakes

McReynolds said people often turn in their ballots late, so it is really important to follow state requirements about deadlines and turn in your ballot on time if not earlier.

And Hailey said people can also forget to sign their ballots in certain places, so they need to read instructions carefully.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is if they forget to sign it,” Hailey said, “so you've got to really remember to sign your ballot.”

Watch what happens

Once you’ve successfully returned your ballot, you can watch and see who wins. However, since so many states have expanded their mail-in voting systems due to coronavirus, both McReynolds and Hailey said to keep in mind that results may not be entirely finalized on Nov. 3.

The election is less than 65 days away, and Hailey said more than 1 million people have already requested their absentee ballots through the website.

“That tells me that voters are fighting to have their voice heard in this moment, and that tells me that a lot of engagement is happening organically, and that tells me that people are really thinking through — and doing it early — how they're going to show up and how they're going to vote in this election,” she said.