With the presidential election less than two weeks away, voting rights advocates, conservatives and community activists are urging the millions of voters who haven't voted yet to cast their ballots in person at the polls or at absentee ballot drop boxes.
The 2020 election is on track for record voter turnout as the nation battles the COVID-19 pandemic, a fight for racial equality and an economic recession. More than 35 million people have already voted.
But voters, particularly people of color and the elderly, are concerned about the health risk of voting in person and their vote being fairly counted.
People of color are dying of COVID-19 at higher rates than white people.
Voting rights groups have accused Republican lawmakers of suppressing Black and Latino voters with long lines in urban communities and restrictive voter laws while President Donald Trump maintains that mail-in voting is susceptible to fraud.
Voters in 14 states – including the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Arizona and Wisconsin – have faced barriers to voting this year, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.
USA TODAY spoke with six people or groups that have a vested interest in this year's election. Here are their thoughts on how to vote:
ACLU: Use ballot drop boxes
Sarah Brannon, a managing attorney with the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, is encouraging people of color concerned about the health risks of in-person voting to deliver their mail-in ballots to drop boxes if they are available.
People living in poor, inner-city neighborhoods or Native American reservations have historically experienced slow or unreliable mail service from the U.S. Postal Service, Brannon said.
"It’s a way for people to feel more trustful of the process," Brannon said. "You put your mail-in ballot in the drop box, it’s sealed, it’s picked up by an election official and you don’t have to worry about whether it's going to get delivered properly."
For Americans who don't have access to drop boxes, Brannon urges them to request their absentee ballot and mail it in as soon as possible.
Bipartisan group urges early voting
Ben Ptashnik, president of the National Election Defense Coalition – a bipartisan movement that strives to secure the nation’s voting systems – recommends early voting at the polls because voters are less likely to run into issues with their ballots.
Early voting, he said, gives voters the opportunity to resolve disputes from elections officials on signature matches or other problems with their ballots. It's also a better option for poor families who move often due to hardships and could see their ballot delivered to the wrong address, Ptashnik said.
“We believe that instead of pushing for vote by mail, the Democrats or anybody interested in civil rights of voters in inner cities should be pushing for social distancing, masks, getting gyms and stadiums (open) to vote," Ptashnik said. "Get people into a large space where they can distance themselves and get people to vote early in person because the problems are going to come on Election Day."
Voting in person a 'streamlined' process
The Rev. Earle Fisher, a Black civil rights activist in Memphis, Tennessee, said while he encourages Black voters to consider both mail-in voting and in-person voting based on their health situation, there is a growing distrust in the Black community with the voting process.
Fisher said most of the Black voters in his community feel most comfortable voting in person because it's more "streamlined" and they can watch their ballot get processed.
"I think the skepticism is understandable," Fisher said. "And I think it's warranted, especially for Black folks because we live in a system and a structure that has worked tooth and nail to disqualify, disenfranchise and diminish our voting power."
Take precautions at the polls
While the League of Women Voters says it won't recommend how Americans should cast their ballots, the organization said it is possible to safely vote in person. Virginia Kase, CEO of the League of Women Voters, said social distancing is critical, especially considering the long lines at polling places across the country.
Other tips from Kase include voting during non-peek hours, wearing a mask, bringing hand sanitizer and following local health instructions.
"Election rules differ in every locality, so it’s important to know the rules that apply where you vote and have a voting plan," Kase said in a statement. "If you see voter suppression at the polls, trained election volunteers are standing by. Voters can call or text the Election Protection Hotline at 866-Our-Vote to report any issues at the polls."
Conservative group says vote at polls
Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow for at the Heritage Foundation – a conservative research group – has criticized universal mail-in ballot systems saying they are susceptible to "fraud, intimidation, coercion and administrative errors.” Mail-in voting, he says, should be reserved for people with legitimate reasons such as being sick, disabled, or serving the country abroad.
In a July article, von Spakovsky suggests there is more integrity with in-person voting. For example, he says polling places allow election officials to answer questions, resolve any voter issues and ensure all information has been properly filled out. State laws also ban electioneering at polling places while there is no way to control it at voters' homes, he writes.
"Mail-in ballots are completed and voted outside the supervision and control of election officials and outside the purview of election observers, destroying the transparency that is a vital hallmark of the democratic process," von Spakovsky writes.
Black voter plans to vote on Election Day
Brandon Edwards of Cordova, Tennessee, plans to vote on Election Day, with hopes that the lines will be shorter since millions turned out for early voting.
Edwards, a 32-year-old Black man who works as a specialist for the Veterans Benefits Administration, said he refuses to cast a mail-in ballot because he fears someone with a political agenda will tamper with his vote or find a reason to disqualify his ballot.
Edwards says he encourages Black and Latino voters to vote in person unless they have a preexisting condition for COVID-19 and can’t risk standing in line at the polls.
“Voter suppression is a real issue in America,” Edwards said. “When I think about the current (political) climate today and how this election is going, people are emotionally invested in this, whether it’s anger, disgust, or sadness. And I think people will enact their personal opinions over things that they control.”