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Virginia: How to Make Sure Your Vote Counts in the 2020 Election

What you need to know, including key deadlines, registration details, and how to vote by mail.

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While Election Day may seem like it's a ways off, you don't want to allow it to sneak up on you. Early voting has already begun in Virginia, so in a way, the election is already here. If you haven't already, now's the time make a plan for how you'll be voting -- whether it's on November 3 or before the crowds form at the polls that day. 

Thankfully, casting your ballot is easier here than in some states. In addition to offering early voting, Virginia doesn't require voters to have an excuse for requesting an absentee ballot for voting by mail, meaning you can easily go that route if you're worried about potential exposure to COVID-19 or just want to avoid the crowds and lines that may form for in-person voting on Election Day. And if you do head to your polling place on the big day, there are measures you can take to protect yourself. All said, you have zero reason to opt out of voting. Don't let these chaotic times discourage you one bit.

What’s the deadline to register to vote in Virginia?

The deadline to register to vote is 22 days before Election Day, which lands on October 13. If you want to mail your voter registration application, be sure to get it in the mail and postmarked by the cutoff date. 

Not sure if you're already registered? The Virginia Department of Elections' Citizens Portal allows you to check your voter status online.

How to register to vote in Virginia

There are several ways you can register to vote, but the easiest, quickest, and perhaps the safest way to register is via the state's online registration form. If for some reason that's not a good fit for you, you've got options. Here's a list of other ways to register, according to Department of Elections:

  • By mail via the state's downloadable registration form
  • In person at your local voter registration office
  • In person at state, local government offices when applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), SNAP, WIC, Medicaid, or Rehabilitation Services
  • In person at government offices that provide state-funded programs for those with disabilities
  • In person at armed forces recruitment centers
  • In person at public libraries
  • In person at the Virginia Department of Elections office
  • In person at the DMV
  • In person at voter registration drives

After you submit a voter registration form, the state will send you a voter information card or other correspondence confirming that you're registered to vote. The state notes, however, that the card doesn't count as a type of photo ID that you'll need to bring with you to the polls. If you don't receive a card or correspondence, contact your local registrar's office.

Can I vote early? When does early voting start in Virginia?

Yep. You can even go today if you want. Early voting started on September 18 and it will continue through October 31. You don't need to fill out a special application to vote early. Just swing by your local registrar's office or satellite voting location, show you photo ID, and cast a ballot.

Vote early if you can. You may have to navigate a long line at your early voting site, but there probably won't be huge crowds like there can be on Election Day. For that reason, this is a safer way to cast your ballot in person (more on that later) in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Can I vote by mail?

You sure can. If you'd rather not vote in person or otherwise can't make it to your polling place between now and Election Day, Virginia will allow you to vote by mail via an absentee ballot. Like voting early, this is a good way to reduce your risk of getting or spreading COVID-19 while voting this year. You can do it from the safety of your kitchen table.

How to request an absentee ballot in Virginia

You no longer need a reason to vote absentee -- any registered voter can request an absentee ballot. The easiest way to apply is online, but there are a few ways of going about it:

The deadline to request an absentee ballot is October 23 at 5pm. Of course, you shouldn't wait that long to get your application in to election officials. The state has already started mailing absentee ballots to voters as of September 18. If you request an absentee ballot now, it'll take about three days for your local registrar to process your request, according to the Board of Elections' voting FAQ page.

"Because of the anticipated high volume of mail-in votes, The Department of Elections is urging all those who wish to vote by mail to request and return their ballots as soon as possible," the Board of Elections said in a recent press release.

Use the Citizen Portal to check the status of your absentee ballot application.

How to vote absentee by mail in Virginia

The absentee ballot you'll receive is identical to the one you'd get at a polling location on Election Day. Once you get it in the mail, carefully follow the instructions, mark the ballot with your choices, and return your completed ballot in the provided envelopes as instructed. While you typically need a witness to sign your absentee ballot, the sate is waiving that requirement due to safety concerns during the pandemic, according to the press release.

Following the instructions is super important, and so is getting your absentee ballot returned in time to be counted. If you're mailing your ballot back, it must be postmarked no later than Election Day, November 3, and received by the local registrar's office no later than noon on November 6. Don't wait that long. Get your absentee ballot in the mail ASAP.

You can also return your absentee ballot by dropping it off at a drop-off location. As the Board of Elections explains on its Casting a Ballot page, there's a drop-off location at your registrar's office and at every satellite voting office in your county or city. You can also drop it off at your local polling place on Election Day. You can find a drop-off location near you by entering your address on the aforementioned Casting a Ballot page.

Is there a way to track my mail-in ballot? How can I make sure it’s counted?

Virginia has a site that allows you to conveniently track the status of your absentee ballot. 

For additional peace of mind, avoid tearing or otherwise damaging your voter materials -- you don't want you ballot to be thrown out on some sort of technicality.

How can I stay safe while voting in person?

Polling places are open from 6am to 7pm on Election Day. If you're in line by 7pm, you'll be allowed to vote. Find your polling place using the state's locator.

While voting absentee by mail and voting early in person are likely the safest ways to vote in this election, there are still ways you can reduce your risk of getting COVID-19 if you plan to vote in person at your local polling place. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has issued several safety tips to help voters protect themselves and others. 

Here's what the CDC recommends, according to its official election guidance page:

  • Wear a mask. 
  • Keep a distance of at least six feet from others at all times.
  • Wash your hands both before and after leaving your polling location.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol frequently throughout your time inside the polling place, especially after you touch things like door hands, voting machines, and other surfaces that lots of other people touch.
  • If you cough or sneeze, cover them with a tissue or the inside of your elbow. Dispose of the tissues in a lined garbage can, then use that 60% alcohol hand sanitizer again. 
  • Don't try to disinfect the voting machine or equipment yourself because you may end up damaging them with cleaners and disinfectant products. This is where hand sanitizer comes in again. Use it right after you touch the voting equipment, and if you use it before you touch the equipment, make sure your hands have dried first. 
  • Try to vote when your polling place isn't as busy. This might involve driving by and checking to see how long the line is.
  • Verify that you're registered to vote before you leave home and make sure you bring any documents you'll need to avoid complications that could result in spending more time inside the polling place.
  • Bring your own black ink pen for marking your ballot, or your own stylus (just check with a polling place worker before you use it). 
  • If possible, fill out a sample ballot at home that you can use to speed up casting your ballot at the polling location. 

Additional Virginia voting resources

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Tony Merevick is Senior News Editor at Thrillist. Send news tips to news@thrillist.com and follow him on Twitter @tonymerevick.