North Carolina started its mail voting process on Sept. 4, making it the first state to do so.

WASHINGTON – After more than a year and a half of campaigning, eight months of primaries and caucuses, more than two dozen candidates, 11 debates, six months of coronavirus pandemic and two conventions, some Americans are finally starting to vote by mail, two months before Election Day on Nov. 3. 

North Carolina, started sending out ballots to voters who requested them today. The ballots will arrive over the next few weeks.  Voters can return them as soon as they arrive, likely making the Tar Heel State the first to vote.

But there are still four debates and tens of millions of votes to count before the country will know whether President Donald Trump will serve a second term, or Democratic challenger Joe Biden will succeed in taking the White House.

Here is a look at what you need to know for the next two months of the campaign: 

Coronavirus pandemic 

The ongoing pandemic is having a huge impact on the 2020 contest, influencing how citizens are considering voting and affecting separate issues voters most care about.

The U.S. has 6.1 million confirmed cases and over 186,000 deaths. Globally, there are 26 million cases and more than 864,000 people have died.

When coronavirus was publicly confirmed in Washington state at the end of February, several prominent Democrats were still vying for the Democratic nomination, and shutdowns curbed the campaign efforts 

Is mail-in voting safe?

The pandemic led some states to delay or cancel their primary elections out of concerns about spreading the infection.

All voters in at least 44 states will be able to vote by mail in the elections in November as absentee voting was expanded for safety reasons during the coronavirus pandemic. Nine states and the District of Columbia plan to mail ballots to all registered voters without them needing to request one. 

Trump has since turned mail-in voting into a political issue, claiming it will open the door to increased voter fraud, even though few experts believe mailed-in ballots are likely to lead to widespread fraud.

The president has already declared the election "rigged" on more than one occasion, and even once suggested delaying the election.

On Thursday, a day after Trump suggested supporters in North Carolina should both mail in ballots and vote in person to test "if the system is as good as they say it is," the state's Board of Elections issued a statement telling voters it is illegal to vote in an election twice. 


Some experts have expressed concerns about the rhetoric given that a surge in mail-in ballots will take longer to count on Nov. 3. Democrats worry misleading signals could emerge on election night if Trump builds an initial lead with in-person votes even if he lags Biden on mail ballots.

They fear Trump, who claims mail voting is rife with fraud, might try to cast doubt on the validity of uncounted mail ballots, setting the stage for chaos and lengthy legal battles in the aftermath of the election.

Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas are the only states where absentee voting will not be available to all voters but limited to those who meet qualifications such as being 65 or older, disabled, a military member or out of town on Election Day.  

When does voting start?

Mail-voting for the presidential election is just weeks away in several key states. 

North Carolina, one of six battleground states where the Biden and Trump campaigns have devoted the most resources, begins sending mail ballots to voters who requested them Friday, Sept. 4.

Voters can return them as soon as they arrive, likely making the Tar Heel State the first to vote.

Georgia, which is historically a solidly GOP state but where polls show Biden is competitive, is scheduled to send absentee ballots to voters Sept. 15. 

In Minnesota, voters can return mail-in ballots or vote early in-person beginning Sept. 18, and most counties in Pennsylvania, a state Trump won narrowly in 2016 and is among the race's most crucial swing states for both campaigns, also will start mailing ballots to voters in September.

Michigan, another critical state that Trump narrowly won in 2016, must start sending absentee ballots to voters who made requests by Sept. 24. 

Florida sends absentee ballots out between Sept. 24 and Oct. 1.


Next debates

Voters can look forward to three presidential debates between Trump and Biden, as well as one vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden's running mate.

All four debates will be moderated by a single individual, a slight departure from four years ago when one of the presidential debates had two moderators.

Details about the debates are as follows: 

Sept. 29: Fox News' Chris Wallace will serve as moderator for the first debate between Trump and Biden at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland. Oct. 7: USA TODAY's Susan Page will moderate the vice presidential debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Oct. 15: Steve Scully, senior executive producer and political editor at the C-SPAN Networks, will moderate the second presidential debate, a town hall format set for the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. Oct. 22: The third and final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, will be moderated by Kristen Welker, co-anchor of NBC's "Weekend TODAY" and a White House correspondent for NBC News.


With party conventions over, the debates stand as perhaps the most crucial opportunities left for candidates to make their cases in a race largely absent of traditional campaigning because of the coronavirus pandemic.


What issues are most important to voters?

According to research by Pew Research Center, 79% of voters say the economy will be an important issue when voting. The economy was also a top issue in 2016.

More than 833,000 Americans sought unemployment assistance last week as parts of the economy remained shuttered and millions who are out-of-work have gone more than a month without an extra $600 in federal jobless aid that expired under the CARES Act.


The combination of slow employment progress and poor public health conditions, along with the absence of another stimulus package with extended unemployment aid, threatens to jeopardize consumer spending in the coming months.

In the current survey, 64% note Supreme Court appointments as an important issue. The makeup of the high court will be a key issue because Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's fight against cancer has fueled a debate over which president might get to choose her eventual successor.


Sixty-two percent say the coronavirus outbreak will be a very important factor in their decision, while 68% of voters say health care is important.

What do current polls say?

According to a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll, Biden leads Trump in the race for the White House 50% to 43%. That advantage narrowed from a 12-percentage-point edge Biden held in June.