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This Voters’ Calendar will stretch our civic attention span to make high-turnout elections a task that mere mortals can perform, not a superhuman feat that tests voters.

Voting in 2020’s fall elections has never been more important. But now that America is in a pandemic, voters – especially in population centers – must make a plan to vote and follow it.

Before the pandemic, we could linger in stores. Now, we have to be more focused. Voting this fall is no different. Voters have three options:

1. Voting with ballots mailed to their homes
2. Early Voting in person
3. Election Day voting in person

With these three options come a second set of decisions. If you receive a ballot by mail, do you have to return it by mail? Or can you return it in person? If so, where? The ballot return choices typically are Drop Boxes, Early Voting sites, Election Day polling places, and county election offices. Every state and county has a mix of these options – or not – for voters.

The good news from 2020’s primaries is that Americans are determined to vote. This proved as true for those voting mailed-out ballots as for in-person voters. The primary experiences allow us to offer advice for the fall – including what to do when something goes wrong.

Two notions we can embrace right off the bat to empower voters:

First, change our language – from “November Election” and “Election Day” and “November 3rd” to “fall election,” and “General Election.” We must stop aiming at one single day to exercise our voting rights. There is a whole voting season and three possible ways to cast your vote: By-Mail, Early in-person, and Election Day in-person.

When the pandemic erupted, voting by mail was touted as the best solution. Yet the 2020 primary showed us how many people still prefer to vote in person. Whatever method you choose, you need a plan or you’ll fall prey to problems. Make a plan to vote this fall – and follow it.

To help, we’ve made a Voters’ Calendar for Voting Season. It starts in August. It stretches our attention span so high-turnout elections can become a task mere mortals can perform instead of a superhuman endurance test.

AUGUST is Check Your Registration month. Starting August 5 (90 days before November 3), it is federally illegal to purge anyone from the voter rolls. New voters can be added but none can be removed. Therefore, starting August 5, check your voter registration information on your state or county election websites. If you’re there, you’re registered!

Here’s a link that gets you to a government-to-government website. Beware disinformation. Some help sites are great, some not. But when you deal directly with the websites of the people running your election – your state and local election officials – your information comes from those legally accountable for running a functional election. They keep your records, know the rules, and count your ballot.

If you’re not on the rolls, re-register! If your name or address are outdated or incorrect, update them! When everything’s in order take a screenshot and file it with time and date. (Google “How do I take a screenshot with my phone?”) Help other voters do the same who don’t have online access. Start with your family. If you moved recently, it’s especially important to check and update your registration. Students, that’s you!

Questions? The U.S. Vote Foundation website has contact information for every local election official. Go to the source; the officials running your jurisdiction’s election.

SEPTEMBER is Order Your Mail Ballot month. Decide which way of voting – a mailed-out ballot, Early, or Election Day – is right for you! Ponder – then make a plan.

Maybe you think you won’t need a mail-in ballot. But what if you do? A delayed application can get caught in a paperwork backlog – a lesson from the primaries. Order that mail-in ballot as soon as your voter registration information is correct; everything from your election office, including your mail ballot, will go to that name and address.

Find out how to apply for the mail ballot (Google or use link above for local government website) and follow directions carefully. Some states let you apply entirely online. Others require that you print out the application, fill it in, sign it, and mail back. Unfortunately, every state has slightly different rules. Don’t procrastinate. You want to be early, near the front of this line.

If voting by mail seems confusing, plan on voting in person. That’s Early Voting (several days out) or Election Day. Your state, county or city election website will have locations and hours.

OCTOBER is Vote Your Mail Ballot Month – or If You Want to Vote in Person, Keep Your Ballot to Take with You Just in Case. Mailed-out ballots get issued in late September or early October. Know when to expect yours. (See your state or county website.) If you don’t get your ballot, call the elections office. Sometimes they can send you a replacement. Act early.

When you do receive your mail ballot, either vote it ASAP and follow your plan to return it – or keep it, envelopes and all, in a safe place. Before signing your name, do two things. First, look at the way your name is on the ballot package mailed to you. Copy that exactly, including a middle initial if it’s there. And look at your driver’s license to see how you signed your signature. You want your name on the ballot return envelope to match so it won’t get rejected in some states.

Then decide how you want to return your ballot. Check local rules about if and where you can drop off a voted mail ballot in person. The reliability of the Post Office, which is under-funded, and the coronavirus, worries us all. If you want to help by avoiding the mail and using a drop-off option instead (Drop Box, Early Voting Center) know that the earlier you drop off your ballot, the greater the chance of your vote being part of the early Election Night returns.

NOVEMBER is Last Chance Month: The Endgame.  If you vote on Election Day, expect a line. Especially in a blue epicenter in a red state.

What if something goes wrong? Like my mail ballot didn’t arrive or arrived late? Every voter should have a back-up plan. If you haven’t gotten your mailed-out ballot by October 26, which is the Monday eight days before November 3rd’s Election Day, plan to shift gears. Find the Early Voting sites in your county and go there and vote. Don’t wait until November 3.

States have different rules on what kind of ballot you will be given. At the check-in desk, poll workers in some states can cancel your status as a mail voter and give you regular ballot. That is the best scenario, because once cast it will be counted. Your job is done as a voter.

If you received your ballot that week—or haven’t returned it already—you might want to bring it, unvoted, to an in-person voting center (Early Voting is better than Election Day) and try to “surrender” it – meaning, exchange it for a regular ballot. Some states will let you do this. Others won’t. If they don’t, you will be asked to fill out a provisional ballot form and given a provisional ballot.

(A provisional ballot, like a mailed-out ballot, isn’t counted until the voter’s information on the outside envelope is verified by election officials at the county headquarters. However, mail envelopes are processed first and provisionals, last, often weeks after the election – which is why you want to avoid them. If there’s an issue with any envelope signature not matching county records, voters have to be contacted by officials to return in a short window to fix it. Most don’t.)

If you bring a mailed-out ballot to a voting site and it’s really busy, see if they have a drop box or drop off option and consider filling it out and returning it that way. The dropped-off mail ballot will be counted long before any provisional ballots. You can always ask a poll worker if you filled out the mail ballot envelope correctly. Don’t guess. Ask questions.

This is voter PPE – Personal Protective Education – in the time of pandemic. Voting Season is not just about November 3rd anymore, not for vote-counting (it might take weeks) and not for vote-casting. Protection of your voting rights starts three months out. Plan to vote and follow your plan. We all know why this election matters.

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