A voting sign at Pemberton Elementary School in Henrico,, November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

Voting in Virginia was already changing even before COVID-19 arrived.

The combination of a global pandemic and some major shifts in state election laws — ushered in after Democrats took control of the General Assembly — means that when Virginians cast their ballots this year, they can expect things to be a little different.

Here’s what you need to know to make sure your vote counts in November.

When is the election and what’s on the ballot?

The election is Nov. 3.

In addition to the main event — the matchup between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden — U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is facing off against Republican challenger Daniel Gade and all 11 of Virginia’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are on the ballot.

Voters will also be asked to weigh in on a statewide referendum to create a bipartisan redistricting commission that, if approved, would redraw the state’s political maps every 10 years using new U.S. census data. Another state referendum question proposes to create a motor vehicle tax exemption for disabled military veterans.

There are numerous other local races and issues on the ballot depending on where you live, including a special election for vacant House of Delegates seat in the Winchester area and casino referendums in several cities.

Absentee voting 

Early voting, which just got easier due to a change in state law that allows anyone to cast an absentee ballot without needing an excuse, began Sept. 18.

Officials are already seeing big spikes in absentee ballot requests as people seek safe alternatives allowing them to avoid any Election Day crowds, and asking voters to submit their ballot requests early to avoid any issues with a last-minute surge.

You can request an absentee ballot through the state’s online application systemIf you’re not sure if you’re registered to vote, you can check your status here

What are my options?

All polling places will be open on Election Day with social distancing protocols in place, so anyone who wants to go through the typical in-person voting process can do so. As usual, polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., and anyone in line at 7 p.m. will be allowed to vote. You can look up your polling place here.

If you choose to get an absentee ballot through the mail, there are multiple ways to return it. 

You can mail it back using the provided envelope, which will include prepaid postage and a tracking code allowing you to keep tabs on your ballot through an online system called Ballot Scout.

Or you can take the ballot back yourself, dropping it off with an employee at your local election office or at one of the drop boxes the General Assembly recently approved.

If you don’t want to rely on the mail but still want to cast your ballot early, in-person absentee voting is going on now at your local elections office and satellite voting offices. You don’t have to fill out an application to cast an absentee ballot in person, you just have to verify your identity when you go.

There are some limitations on mail-in absentee ballots if it’s your first time voting in a particular locality and you registered to vote by mail. There are exemptions for people who might face particular difficulty voting in person, such as college students, military personnel and their spouses, the elderly and people with illnesses or disabilities. If it’s your first time voting in your city or county and you want to vote by mail, check with your local registrar to verify your eligibility.

What are the key deadlines?

The deadline to register to vote in November is Oct. 13.

The deadline to request an absentee ballot through the mail is Oct. 23.

The deadline to vote absentee in person is Oct. 31.

If I vote by mail, will my ballot arrive in time?

There can be complications if you wait until the last minute to mail your ballot back, and that’s a heightened concern for many this year due to slowdowns with the U.S. Postal Service.

If you want a mail-in ballot, the Postal Service recommends requesting one as early as possible and mailing it back before Election Day, preferably at least a week in advance.

In Virginia, election officials will count ballots that come in a few days after the polls close, as long as they’re postmarked by 7 p.m. on Election Day. Ballots received after noon on Nov. 6 will not be counted. Ballots with a missing or illegible postmark will be counted as long as they come in before the deadline.

Do I still need an ID to vote?

A change to state law this year means photo IDs are no longer strictly required. But if you have one, you should still bring it to streamline the process. Anyone who doesn’t have an ID can get a regular ballot, but only after they sign a statement affirming they are who they say they are. 

Anyone who doesn’t have an ID and refuses to sign the statement can cast a provisional ballot, which will be set aside until election officials can determine whether the person is or isn’t a valid voter. 

Other changes to state law expanded the types of identification documents that will be accepted, allowing voters to use expired driver’s licenses, bank statements, utility bills and paychecks to verify their identity. College students will also be able to use any higher education ID, regardless of whether it includes a photo or was issued by a non-Virginia school.

A complete list of acceptable IDs is available here.