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A Beginner’s Guide to Voting During a Pandemic

Pandemic or no pandemic, voting in a Presidential election in-person is headache inducing. Every four years, turnout spikes during the General Election due to high media visibility of media coverage and candidate platforms and stretches polling locations to the max and leads to hours long polling lines. Additionally, it can be extremely difficult for students and hourly workers to receive adequate time off from their hectic schedules to spend hours waiting to cast their ballots. 

Even without the added element of social distancing recommendations, I always recommend either voting early at the Board of Elections office or requesting an absentee ballot as soon as possible during a presidential election. However, there is a *lot* to consider when it comes to deciding when and where to vote, so the best thing you can do is make a plan and -- hopefully -- stick to it!

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Is it even secure to vote by mail? What about voter fraud?

Absolutely! In states with the highest rates of mail-in voting, there are also extremely low rates of voter fraud. Due to the fact that in many states it’s difficult to request your absentee ballot and vote by mail (in a lot of areas you need an excuse, witnesses AND to print out a paper application and mail it yourself!), it’s *extremely* safe. In fact, there have only been 1,200 allegations of voter fraud since 2000. Even though that’s already an extremely low number, there were only 204 allegations and 143 convictions related to mail-in ballots. While no system is fraud proof, we have a very robust system of election officials that are very good at keeping the system secure and protecting the legitimacy of our elections.

Truthfully, while mail-in voting is a hot topic this year, it’s not a new concept and millions of Americans -- many of them college students! -- already vote by mail every year. It’s safe, secure and reliable

And -- before you ask -- mail-in voting does not benefit one party more than the other and voter safety shouldn’t be a partisan issue. As far back as 2001, studies have shown that vote-by-mail systems have not disproportionately mobilized neither Democrats nor Republicans. Today, a majority of voters have been found to support increased mail-in voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, regardless of their partisan leanings. In a healthy democracy, it is to *all* of our advantages to increase engagement in our electoral systems. Encouraging Americans to do their civic duty is not and should not be controversial. 

How do I request my ballot?

In Virginia, you can easily request your absentee ballot using the Citizen’s Portal. You will need your Social Security number and your state-issued Virginia ID handy, but other than that I found the process incredibly easy to complete and only took a few minutes from start to finish. 

If you aren’t quite ready to commit to voting by mail, you can also use the Citizen’s Portal to update your registration if you’ve moved recently or would like to vote on campus rather than where you were registered before, check your polling place (they do change occasionally and you’ll *only* be able to vote at your correct polling place, so *always* check it before voting!) and verify your registration.

If you aren’t registered to vote in Virginia, head to vote.org or your state’s website to request your absentee ballot today!

Will my ballot get there in time and be counted?

If you request your absentee ballot by the deadline, you will have enough time to receive it and send it back in time. However, I would recommend requesting it sooner rather than later! The earlier you request your ballot, the earlier you’ll receive it and the more time you’ll have to fill out the ballot and send it back! Make sure you’re paying attention to the deadlines for registration and requesting your ballot, though! In Virginia, the deadline for both of these is October 13th -- but again, the sooner you get your paperwork done the better.

If you’re like me and submitted your absentee ballot request several weeks ago, don’t be alarmed if you haven’t received your’s in the mail yet! In Virginia, absentee ballots are eligible to be mailed out beginning 45 days before the election and while that date is rapidly approaching, it’s note *quite* time yet.

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Is it better to vote in my home state or where I go to school?

This is 100% a personal choice, generally I would recommend staying registered in the state that you’ll be in *most* of the year. While the date that pops into our minds most often is the date of the general election in November, also remember to be mindful of potential special elections and primaries. Additionally, in Virginia, *every* year is an election year. While most states hold their elections in even-numbered years (think 2016 or 2020), Virginia holds their gubernatorial elections in odd-numbered years (think 2015 or 2021). Depending on what’s most convenient for you or even what state you feel the most connected to, you can make it work either way!

I would also recommend thinking about where your vote is going to count *most,* if politics are something that matters deeply to you. While I firmly believe your first factor should always be wherever it’ll be easiest for you to make it to the polls the most often, if you have the option to vote in a swing-state you would have an extremely tangible impact on the outcome of the election. Just food for thought!

Am I still allowed to vote in person?

Yes, the option to vote in person on Election Day is always available! If you’re high-risk or simply worried about exposure, I would absolutely say voting by mail is your best option -- but it *is* still possible to vote in person. If you do decide to go to the polls, I suggest avoiding high-traffic voting hours as much as you’re able. One great option would be in the middle of the traditional workday or as soon as the polls open. I have every confidence that the volunteers working each polling station will take every precaution possible to maintain social distancing recommendations and keep high-contact surfaces clean, but it will always be safer to minimize the amount of time you spend at your polling location and the number of people you come in contact with. You also have the option to vote early at your local registrar's office beginning 45 days before the election, which will minimize your contact with people outside your household without needing to vote by mail. Don't forget: if you're voting in person -- either on Election Day or early -- you must present a valid form of ID or sign a statement verifying that you are the voter you claim to be! This is an update to previous state laws requiring a state-issued photo ID, so make sure you know what's accepted and don't leave home without it!

If you cannot or don’t feel comfortable wearing a mask: do not go to vote in person (really, don’t go anywhere!). Please have respect for the poll-workers taking an incredible risk to make it possible to vote in person and do everything in your power to make it a safe experience. Wear a mask, keep hand sanitizer handy, take your temperature before leaving and don’t head to the polls if in the last 14 days you’ve traveled (especially internationally), have been in contact with anyone who tested positive or is showing symptoms or are showing symptoms yourself.

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Regardless of your political leanings, this election is incredibly important. Beyond the Presidential Election that is dominating the news cycle, each of the down-the-ballot races are going to have a profound impact on the future of America -- both in the short term as we attempt to navigate a pandemic and in the long term as we decide what kind of country we would like to be. No matter how you plan on voting this November, please be proactive in making your plan to vote (this is a great resource to help make a personalized plan, regardless of where you are in the country.) and consider how the situation could change in the coming weeks. I’ll meet you at the polls, collegiettes!

Chloe Fischer

George Mason University '22

Chloe is majoring in Government and International Politics at George Mason University. She is currently the President and Campus Correspondent of Her Campus at George Mason University. Outside of Her Campus, she is also a founding member and the secretary of Ignite GMU, her university's chapter of Ignite, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering young women to declare their ambition and ignite their political power.
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