Voting 101: Where, when and how to vote in 2020

Image of a hand snapping fingers against a blue backgroundImage: Image of a hand snapping fingers against a blue background

In a Nutshell

The first step in voting is to register to vote. You can visit the Credit Karma app, VoteAmerica or vote.gov to register online. Other steps include learning about what’s on the ballot in your state/local jurisdiction and choosing whether you'll vote in-person or by mail.
Editorial Note: Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. It’s accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted.
Advertiser Disclosure

We think it's important for you to understand how we make money. It's pretty simple, actually. The offers for financial products you see on our platform come from companies who pay us. The money we make helps us give you access to free credit scores and reports and helps us create our other great tools and educational materials.

Compensation may factor into how and where products appear on our platform (and in what order). But since we generally make money when you find an offer you like and get, we try to show you offers we think are a good match for you. That's why we provide features like your Approval Odds and savings estimates.

Of course, the offers on our platform don't represent all financial products out there, but our goal is to show you as many great options as we can.

Knowing how to vote is key to exercising your constitutional rights as an American aged 18 and older. But the answer to the question “How do I vote?” varies depending on where you live.

Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, is Election Day across the U.S. This year, voters have the chance to cast their ballots for president as well as for state and local positions including senators, governors and county officials.

How can you vote this year? The first thing to know is that how you vote depends on where you live. The National Voter Registration Act establishes certain requirements for federal elections. States and local governments have their own regulations, though, so it’s important to know the rules in your state.



Step 1: Register to vote

The first step in voting is to register to vote. You can visit the Credit Karma app, VoteAmerica or vote.gov to register online. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia allow online voter registration. Or, you can download the National Mail Voter Registration Form and mail it in to register to vote.

Know your state’s voter registration deadlines

There are some important deadlines for voter registration, and this varies depending on where you live. Check out the map below for key voter registration deadlines in your state.

If you’re living outside of the U.S. or are an active-duty member of the military, you can register to vote and request your absentee ballot at the same time with the Federal Post Card Application. Check out VoteAmerica for more information on overseas voting or voting as a member or spouse of active-duty military personnel.

Know what information you’ll need in order to register to vote

You’ll need to provide some basic info about yourself in order to register, and what’s needed can vary from state to state. In every state, you’ll need to be a U.S. citizen (some states may require proof of citizenship) and be at least 18 years old.

Know how to confirm that you’re registered to vote

Once you’ve registered to vote, you’ll want to check to make sure you’re on the voting register. Remember that it may take a few weeks from when you register to vote until your name shows up on the voter rolls.

You can check the status of your registration through the Credit Karma app, by visiting VoteAmerica or by going to your county board of elections website.

Step 2: Learn about what’s on the ballot in your state/local jurisdiction

Just as it’s important to know deadlines for voting in your state, it’s also important to know who’s running for office and what issues are on the ballot this election cycle. You can generally go to your local board of elections website to view a sample ballot ahead of each election.

What information will be on a ballot?

What you’ll see on a ballot when you vote varies depending on where you live. But there will be a few general pieces of information you’ll see on every ballot, such as the office being voted on, the names of each candidate running for that office and each candidate’s party affiliation.

For a general election like the one on Election Day 2020, you’ll see options to vote for presidential candidates, congressional representatives, and you may see options for a variety of state and local races as well.

Step 3: Choose how you’ll vote: In-person or by mail

As a U.S. voter, you have options on how to vote in each election. You can either vote in person or by mail with an absentee ballot. There are some key things to know depending on which option you pick.

Voting in person

It’s important to understand that if you vote in person you’ll need to know your polling location. Early voting may be possible depending on where you live.

Whether you’re voting early or on Election Day, you’ll need to know what to bring with you in order to vote. Although the specific requirements to vote vary by state, you may need to have your voter registration card or a driver’s license or other state-issued ID in order to vote. You can visit your state’s election website or the National Conference of State Legislatures website to learn more about state-specific voter ID requirements.

If you need help with voting, federal law states that you have a right to accessible voting at your polling place and assistance from a poll worker. Visit the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s website for more information.

Voting by absentee ballot

Voting by absentee ballot is another option if you can’t vote in person. This is also referred to as “vote by mail” or voting by mail-in ballot. It’s important to know if your state requires a reason for an absentee ballot when you ask for one.

There are also deadlines for returning a mail-in ballot. The map below shows the key deadlines for absentee ballots in your state and whether you need an excuse for requesting to vote by mail.

For more information, check out the Credit Karma app or visit VoteAmerica’s website or the U.S. Vote Foundation website and check your state or territory’s deadlines.

How has COVID-19 affected voting in 2020?

Because of the ongoing pandemic, some states have waived their typical requirements for absentee voting or will accept the pandemic as a reason to request a mail-in ballot rather than voting in person. You can find state-specific information on your state’s board of elections website or on the federal U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s website.

When voting by absentee or mail-in ballot, the U.S. Postal Service and many states are encouraging voters to mail their ballot at least one week before their state deadline for submission. This will allow time for ballots to be delivered to the election offices.

If you do end up voting in person, either when early voting begins ahead of Election Day or on Election Day itself, please be mindful of safety. Your state or local government may have social distancing measures in place to help with safety, but these could mean standing in a longer line or some delays in voting.

And remember, no matter what anyone says while you’re attempting to vote in person, if you are in line to vote when your polling place closes, you have the right to stay in line and vote.


What’s next?

Voting is fundamental to democracy. And it makes a huge difference in shaping the future of the U.S., your state and your local government. Elected officials decide things like who pays taxes and how much those taxes are, how much money goes toward public services, and what laws are on the books that make activities legal or illegal.

It can be daunting to navigate the paperwork and various local regulations related to voting. But armed with knowledge about how the election process works, you’ll be able to vote with confidence on Election Day 2020 and beyond.


About the author: Paris Ward is a content strategist at Credit Karma, providing readers with the latest news that will aid their financial progress. She has more than a decade of experience as a writer and editor and holds a bachelor’s… Read more.