Washington, DC: 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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The weeks leading up to a historic election are hectic enough without the added bonus of a pandemic to worry about. Thankfully, DC is making it easier than ever to avoid the polls this year, even sending all registered voters mail-in ballots the first week of October. Those not yet registered can do so easily online, by mail, or in person, and anyone is allowed to vote via absentee ballot if they don’t feel comfortable visiting a voting center in person.

Possibly the most stressful part of voting this year (besides waiting for the results) is making sure you meet all of DC’s deadlines and stay safe if you choose to vote in person on November 3 or to volunteer at your local polling center. Luckily, we've put together this handy guide with all the information and local dates you need to know to ensure that your voice is heard this November. Happy voting!

What’s the deadline to register to vote in Washington, DC?

The deadline to register online or by mail is October 13, but make sure to send the mail-in registration early enough that it arrives by that cutoff date. To be safe, it’s best to get it in the mail at least a week in advance.

The good news is that if you do miss the deadline, you’ll still be able to utilize DC’s same-day registration, which is available during early voting and on Election Day. Remember to bring your proof of residence before you head to the polls.

For the many Washingtonians who might be voting from elsewhere in the country this election year, make sure to request your absentee ballot by the October 27 deadline, and return it by mail before November 3. 

If you're unsure about your voter status, you can check your voter record online.

How to register to vote in Washington, DC

There are three ways you may register to vote in the District. The most convenient method is registering online, which involves a digital form that only takes a few minutes to complete. For those who are unable to or wish not to register online, a Voter Registration Application can be downloaded and filled out manually. Once complete, you can mail, fax, or even just take a picture of it with your cell phone and send by email to DCRegistrations@dcboe.org. The third method to register is in person, which is best for those who were not able to before the deadline. You’ll be required to show some proof of residence that displays your name and current DC address, like your identification card, a recent utility bill, or a paystub issued no earlier than 90 days before the election.

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

Yes, and the early voting period in DC runs from October 27 to November 2, but make sure to check specific times as they may vary based on where you live in the city. The list of early voting centers can be found here, with each ward providing at least two early-voting locations that will be open from 8:30am-7pm each day. In-person absentee voting is also available 15 days prior to the election.

Can I vote by mail?

Voting by mail is not only possible but encouraged this year because of safety concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. The Board of Elections plans to mail a ballot to every registered voter in DC beginning the first week of October, and instructions will be included. For those concerned about sending their ballots in by mail, voters are also being encouraged to drop off their completed ballots directly at a drop box.

How to vote by mail in Washington, DC

Voters registered in DC can expect to receive their ballot from the Board of Elections by the second week of October. Completed ballots can be returned by mail or at one of the mail-in ballot drop off sites around the city. If you choose to mail it back, it must be postmarked by Election Day and arrive no later than November 10.

If you moved recently and need your ballot mailed to an address other than where you're currently registered, you will first need to request it with a mail-in ballot application. The deadline to request an absentee ballot if you need it sent to a different address is October 26.

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

You can check your mail-in ballot status by inputting your information here. If your mail-in ballot does not arrive to you for any reason by October 21, the Board of Elections suggests that voters should plan to vote in-person at a vote center. The board will not mail out another ballot if you didn’t receive your first one, even if it was lost in the mail, so those unable to vote in-person because of a physical impairment, pre-existing condition, or any other reason can call the Board of Elections at 202-727-2525.

Otherwise, be sure to carefully read the ballot instructions and meet the aforementioned deadlines. 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?

Besides voting by mail or submitting your completed ballot off at a drop off location, there are a few ways you can stay safe while voting in person. First, try to avoid delays by verifying your voter info and having any necessary registration forms ready before you head out the door. Bring your own black pen, so you don’t have to use one that has been touched by other voters, and do your homework on who you plan to vote for so you are able to depart quickly.

To avoid large crowds, voters are recommended to come early and to avoid peak times such as 8am-9am, 12pm-1pm, and 5pm-6pm. The most important practices to remember are to wear a mask at all times, maintain at least six feet of distance when you can from fellow voters, cover your coughs and sneezes, use hand sanitizer often, and wash your hands thoroughly when you get back home.

Here's a list of CDC safety recommendations:

  • 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.

Can I volunteer at a polling station?

Yes, DC is currently facing a shortage of poll workers as the pandemic continues to limit people's ability to leave their homes, so election officials are now seeking more workers to help on Election Day and at early voting locations.

Those interested in volunteering must be a DC resident and at least 16 years-old and will be required to complete four hours of training prior to Election Day. Those who choose to help will be rewarded a stipend of up to $250, and those who take their volunteering one step further to become precinct captains will earn up to $300.

Volunteers will be assigned to a vote center and work from about 6am-9pm on Election Day, or a shorter six-hour shift on early voting days. Note that you’ll also probably be asked to help set up the polling place for a few hours the day before the election.

Those eligible can apply online, or if you have further questions can call 202-741-5283 or send an email to electionworker@dcboe.org.

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Austa Somvichian-Clausen is a freelance food and travel writer, as well as a staff writer for The Hill where she covers the topics of diversity and equality. She now lives in Brooklyn with her girlfriend and two fur babies, but called DC home for many years -- attending American University and then working for National Geographic. Follow her on Instagram.