A pragmatic guide to voting in the 2020 election

In this post I won’t wax poetically about the importance of voting. Instead I’ll tell you the most important things to know about voting in this election as efficiently as I can, and then talk a bit about what else you can do besides voting.

Part A: The most important thing to know. Tell your friends! Spread this far and wide!

If you’re voting absentee or by mail, be absolutely sure to follow the instructions to a T. Concretely:

  • Many states, including Pennsylvania, will mail you two envelopes along with your ballot. The smaller one is a secrecy envelope (also called an absentee ballot envelope) to put your ballot in. Put your ballot in that envelope, and then put that envelope inside the envelope you’ll be mailing.
  • Many states, including North Carolina, require a witness signature for absentee ballots.
  • Check carefully for every place that asks for your signature, and sign there.
  • Send your ballot in by October 25th if you want to be sure it arrives on time.

If you mess something up, there’s a good chance your vote will not be counted.

Part B: The basics of voting

I want a really brief summary of what I need to know in order to vote in my state.

See here!

Do I need to register to vote?

If you haven’t registered before, or have moved states, then yes (unless you live in North Dakota). Go here to register to vote. See here for registration deadlines (some have already passed, and others are coming up really soon).

If I’ve registered to vote in multiple states, can I choose which one to vote in?

I’m not a lawyer and none of this is legal advice, but generally you can only vote in the last state you’ve registered in. But if you’re a resident of multiple states, you can probably re-register to vote in whichever state you want to vote in. Obviously you can’t vote in two different states in the same election.

How do I request an absentee/mail ballot?

Go here, find your state, and click on the link under “requesting an absentee ballot”.

How do I vote in person?

Go here to find out where your voting place is. Election day is November 3rd but in many states you can vote early. See here for information about when and where you can vote early (find your state and look under “voting early”). Also check the information under “in-person voting” — depending on what state you’re voting in, you may need to show an ID!

Is my ballot more likely to be counted if I vote in person?

If you follow the instructions, your ballot will almost certainly be counted. But in some states it’s really easy to mess up. If you don’t trust yourself to follow instructions (reasonable!), you may want to vote in person; it’s up to you to weigh other risk factors such as COVID and the possibility that something will come up and you won’t be able to vote on election day.

Do I live in a state or district with an important race?

Probably. I’m aware of important statewide elections in the states highlighted on this map. Additionally, there are important local elections in every state!

States with important statewide elections that I’m aware of

Here’s a brief summary:

  • The states that are most pivotal for the presidential election are: New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, Arizona, Minnesota, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, New Mexico, Virginia, Maine, Colorado, Alaska, Texas, Iowa, and Ohio, as is Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district. (Source)
  • The most important U.S. Senate races are in: Iowa, Maine, North Carolina, Montana, Georgia, Colorado, South Carolina, Arizona, Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Georgia, Alaska, Texas, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Kentucky. (Source)
  • See here for the congressional districts with the closest races, and here to find out what congressional district you live in.
  • You can go here to see if your state legislative district is competitive. If you live in Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, or Texas, at least one chamber of your state legislature is realistically up for grabs. (Source)
  • If you live in North Carolina, Montana, Missouri, or Puerto Rico, your race for governor could be close. (Source)
  • There are other important things on the ballot, such as local races and ballot measures, but I couldn’t possibly cover all of those. See here for what will be on your ballot. As usual, California has lots of important ballot measures. I’m also excited about the ranked choice voting initiatives in Alaska and Massachusetts.

Part C: Beyond voting

I don’t live in a swing state. Is there anything I can do to make my vote more valuable?

You can try to vote swap with someone planning to vote third party in a swing state! Let’s say Demi the Democrat lives in New York (not a swing state) and Libby the Libertarian lives in Pennsylvania (a swing state). Demi wants to vote for Joe Biden, and Libby wants to vote for Jo Jorgensen (the Libertarian candidate) but thinks that Biden is the lesser of two evils compared to Trump. Since a vote for Jorgensen is about as valuable anywhere in the country but a vote for Biden is much more valuable in Pennsylvania, Demi can offer to vote swap with Libby: Demi will vote for Jorgensen and Libby will vote for Biden. (This is generally done on the honor system; sending a picture of your ballot is illegal in many states.)

If you want to vote swap, you can reach out to anyone who you think might be interested, or post on social media. More speculatively, maybe you can find someone by posting to the r/Libertarian or r/GreenParty subreddits.

Is donating to campaigns effective? If so, where should I donate?

I’m really uncertain about whether donating to campaigns is effective, but some studies find that it is, particularly for down-ballot races! But my best guess is that political donations are effective and a good use of money — this is something I’ve changed my mind about recently (though an even better use of money is to find someone who wants to donate to the opposing side and agree to both donate your money to charity instead). Note, though, that if you donate at the last minute (in the week or two leading up to election day), your donation may be less effective.

This year in particular, I think it’s pretty reasonable to donate to Joe Biden because the stakes are so high. I’d also recommend donating to Senate races. Unlike the presidential election, where there are only two outcomes, there are many outcomes for the Senate, all of them substantially different. A 49 D – 51 R Senate is very different from 50 D – 50 R, which is very different from 52 D – 48 R, which is very different from 55 D – 45 R in terms of what gets done (not to mention that it will affect the balance of the Senate after the 2022 and 2024 elections). So while the “tipping point” Senate races (i.e. the ones that are likely to decide control of the Senate) are North Carolina, Maine, Arizona, Colorado, and Iowa, it’s very reasonable to donate to races for “reach” seats that, if Democrats win, will give them a safer majority. So, I recommend donating based on three factors:

  • How close the race is (see here).
  • How small the state is (see here), because Senate races in smaller states are decided by smaller absolute margins, so you need to sway fewer votes to win the election.
  • How neglected the race is by donors (see here).

There are also other considerations, such as FCC regulations that means different things for airing ads in different states. Political strategist David Shor, who has put more thought into this than I have and whom I trust a great deal, recommend this fund if you want to donate to Democratic Senate candidates, which (as of 10/11) will split your money between the candidates in Alaska, Montana, Maine, and Kansas.

There are also lots of good races to donate to further down the ballot! But that’s out of my area of (relative) expertise, so I don’t feel comfortable giving advice there.

What else can I do?

You can volunteer for a campaign! See here for what sorts of things are effective. The tl;dr is that we don’t know for sure, but calling and texting seem to be more effective than door-knocking. You can sign up here to text for the Biden campaign; you can probably find out how to volunteer for a different campaign by going to their website.

And, of course, you should feel free to share this post, so people know where, when, and how to vote!


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