Plan ahead. Vote early. Get it right.

It’s two months to the election and maybe you’re impatient. Or a little bit frustrated and bored. Or a little bit worried, with USPS under attack and the constant drone of Trump’s Twitter lies about voting and his obvious attempts to suppress Biden votes. 

Early voting hasn’t started. Ballots haven’t been mailed out. You’d like to do something, if only to take your mind off all the chaos.

It’s critical to remember that Trump can only cheat his way into office if it's close. This time, we need an avalanche. So far the polls are much too close, even the ones that favor a Biden-Harris win. USPS is predicting mail delays. Some states will continue their egregious polling station closures in typically Democratic neighborhoods. If things stay the same as they are right now, it looks like a long night or week at best, and at worst, a very long four years to come. It doesn’t have to be. We can fix all of this with turnout. Turnout of solid, validated Biden votes.

The difference between a great Election Night and any other outcome is you. Yes, you.

If you vote, and vote early, and your vote follows all the rules, you can help make November 3 the end of the mess we’re living. Your vote might be the deciding vote in your district or your state. And when you’re finished with all the voting with weeks to go, you can leverage your power by helping others, and we can bury the Trump trainwreck in Biden ballots. Furthermore, your help in getting others to vote Biden-Harris could mean we don’t even have to wait until November 4 to learn that we've kicked this nightmare to the curb. 

To make this happen, you need a plan. And then you need to do the things you planned. And you need to do them right. Daunting? No. Voting in-person and voting by mail aren’t any harder than ordering fast food at a counter or ordering online.

There’s a lot of help available to you, full of registration dates and places, mail-in voting requirements, and early voting opportunities, and they’re detailed on many, many websites, including NBCNews, Axios, 538, and even us.

What you should do now.

Let's not use deadlines as a starting point. Deadlines start with “dead” for a reason. Deadlines represent the time that you risk missing this election completely. We’re better off never to think about last chances and focus instead on as early as possible. Now is not the time for a photo finish.

You can find start dates on many social media sites, or on websites as identified above, and there are even other voting guides on websites that normally aren’t very political. That demonstrates how important this election is. You’ll get great guidance from your local newspaper’s website. But unless you’re checking with the local government directly and frequently, these websites won't all get every iota right in every county and every state.

Wherever you get your information, pay no attention to end dates. What if a nationwide site has a typo that sets the deadline just one day too late in your jurisdiction? Maybe the deadline is "midnight on the 1st".  Does that mean the end of the day on the 1st? Or does it mean 12:01AM on the 1st is too late? Maybe the deadline changes because it’s a Sunday, or because bad weather is coming. State governments add or subtract voting opportunities without a lot of fanfare.

The way to beat the deadlines is to vote as early as you possibly can, any way you find convenient. Deadlines should be meaningless to you. Instead, do the following now.

Make sure you’re registered

If you’ve never voted before, or if you haven’t voted in a while, or if you live somewhere new since the last time you voted, you need to register. If you voted recently, check on your registration. You’ll probably find a link to check on your registration or register for the first time on the website of your county or the Secretary of State website in your state. Check that the address in your voter registration matches your current ID. If it doesn’t, you might be turned away at the polls. We have to get everything right.

If you’re not registered and you’ve missed the registration deadline, your state might still have Election Day registration. You might have to vote in person on Election Day, but that’s better than not voting at all this year. Consult the local election websites and call your local elections office to see if you have additional options.

Ask for a mail-in ballot if you don’t want to vote in person

Most states will let you ask for a paper ballot. If you live in one of them and you’d prefer to vote from home, you can apply for mail-in voting right away, even before the ballots are printed. You’ll receive your ballot in most states well before Election Day. (Some states are resolving issues, worried that ballots won’t come in time). You might be able to pick up a ballot at your local election office. Call your local Election Supervisor or consult your state’s Secretary of State website, which you can find on our voting guide.

Bear in mind this advice from the USPS: “If you plan to vote by mail, plan ahead.” This is the Postal Service telling you. They get it.

Make sure your vote will count.

Vote in-person with lots of time to spare.

Many states are providing early voting polling stations. They’re especially helpful during this pandemic because all that extra time spreads out the voters for shorter lines and lots of social distancing. Early early voting might be less crowded than last-minute early voting, and if the early-early line is daunting and you can’t stay, you have time to come back again. States are making sure that voting in-person will be very safe, assuming that you and your neighbors follow their guidelines. Make sure that your ID is current and in your hand. Mask up.

You don’t have to vote in every contest on the ballot, although it’s best if you do. Your vote for President will count even if you don’t vote for every office. Your vote for the races you choose will still count if you leave some places empty. But if you can, you should vote for everything on the ballot, assuming that you know anything about your choices.

And this year, it’s especially important to vote Democratic for your US congressional representative (who is definitely on your ballot this year) and any US Senator who’s running in your state. While you’re at it, vote for Democrats for state positions. They’re the ones who decide, among other things, how easy it will be for you to vote in the future.

Read local ballot initiatives with a critical eye. Google them at home before filling out your ballot. Their titles are often artfully worded. A proposal called "Keep Our Students Safe Now" might very well call for AR-15s to be issued to all schoolchildren. Maybe that isn’t what you’re looking for. Read up.

Vote by mail with lots of time to spare.

Let’s say you’re voting by mail and that you’ve already requested a mail-in ballot. For you, election day is the day you get your ballot.

Whenever you get your ballot, that very moment is a fine time to fill it out and send it in. In fact, there aren’t a lot of reasons to sit on it; it’s the paper version of early voting. In most places, you can send it back via USPS (assuming you have at least 3 weeks to go before Election Day.) If you’re worried about mail delays, there are other options. Some places let you drop off the ballot at any polling station where early voting is taking place. You don’t have to wait in line if there is one. Some places have ballot boxes specifically designed to take your vote. Other places let you drop off the ballot at your county’s election office.

If you’ve filled out your ballot but you haven’t mailed it yet and you can’t figure out how to get it delivered in time, you can still vote in person. Just make sure you destroy your unused ballot after you’ve voted so that it doesn’t find its way into the system.

If it’s getting close to Election Day and you haven’t received your ballot, you can go vote in person at your early voting location. As long as your paper ballot is never sent in, your in-person vote will count. You know not to fill out the paper version after you’ve already voted, right? If you ever want to vote again, please don’t vote twice.

If you mess up your paper ballot, you can get another one from your election authority. Or you can vote in person. Just make sure you don’t let too much time go by. Even with early voting, lines are likely to be long on Election Day.

Time out for a horror story.

Do you worry that we haven’t done enough to address climate change, for example? Should we have done something 20 years ago? 2000 Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore would have been your guy. But three things happened in Florida that year in the bluest of areas, Broward and Palm Beach counties:

  • In-person voting machines in Broward didn’t punch voter choices through the cardboard ballot hard enough, leaving “hanging chads”, many of which were rejected in the recount. They have new machines now. That doesn’t make Al Gore feel better, though.
  • Palm Beach County created a confusing “butterfly ballot”, which caused hundreds of lifelong Democratic Jews to vote for Pat Buchanan, a white supremacist, instead of their intended candidate, Al Gore. Even Buchanan said “When I took one look at that ballot on Election Night... it's very easy for me to see how someone could have voted for me in the belief they voted for Al Gore.”
  • Third-party entry Ralph Nader drew nearly 100,000 Florida votes.
  • Al Gore lost Florida by 537 votes statewide, 9 votes for every 100,000 cast in the state and that tipped the electoral college.

Things go wrong in every election. Some of those problems are institutional. Others are our own fault. Don’t be part of a horror story.

Make sure your ballot isn’t rejected.

This year, there will be a lot of mailed ballots, especially from first-time voters and first-time absentee voters. Surges in mail-in voting tend to have lots of rejected ballots. Most rejections are from voters who didn’t sign properly or didn’t sign at all. Another reason is that the ballot missed the deadline. It’s always important, but especially important this time, that your ballot follows the rules. 

Let’s deconstruct the mail-in voting package you get. The ballot is the piece of paper that you fill in with your votes, and it has no information about who you are. Your completed ballot keeps your votes private. Whether you voted is tracked; how you voted is your secret.

The page that contains your votes might go into a sleeve or inner envelope, and that inside protection goes into an outer envelope that has information identifying you. You need to seal that envelope after your ballot has been safely tucked into the sleeve and the sleeve is inside the envelope. There’s a place to sign and date the outside envelope with your name printed on it.

Put your ballot into the privacy sleeve, put the sleeve into the return envelope, sign and date the envelope (look carefully for any other places on that envelope in case there are other requirements.) Then seal the outer envelope.

The outside envelope might contain a bar code that identifies you, and the election office does a check of your signature to make sure that the right person has filled out the ballot. Once they’re happy it’s you, they pull out the sleeve covering your completed ballot and drop it in a bin with the other ballots from your area. This is how mail-in voting is very safe, not only for you, but for democracy. Nobody can see your votes. Nobody can vote instead of you.

But it means that your signature must match the one that is on file, and that signature is often the one on your driver’s license or the one from your voter registration, where you might have signed on a pad, not with a pen. You can check which signature your state checks here. Look at the name on the ballot and sign accordingly. Now isn’t the time to try out a new signature persona. This is as serious as a courtroom. No snark.

After you’ve voted

You’d think that after your ballot is submitted, you’re done, but you aren’t. If you voted by mail, you can track your ballot in many states to make sure that it was accepted. If it was rejected, you might have time to get another one, or you might be able to vote in-person. You’ll be demoralized, but you get a second chance, which you should use. 

With time to go until voting day and your own vote behind you, you can now help other people to vote. Call your friends and family and beg them or help them to vote safely. Check your mother’s or grandmother’s registration and ballot tracking. Sure, your grandmother follows you around on Facebook, but chances are she can’t navigate a Secretary of State website.

Drive elderly voters to the polls (with masks on all of you) at early voting or on Election Day. Volunteer to be a poll worker for early voting or for Election Day. Volunteer for the Biden campaign.

Or go on the Swing Left or the Vote Save America website now and leverage your impact by helping to swing other districts from red to blue this year. They give you opportunities to reach out to others to get out the votes in the districts we need the most.

Every vote counts, but only if it's counted. Trying and failing has the same result as staying home, and staying home is not an option. Not this year. Help yourself. And then help others. Help Joe Biden get the landslide we need by making a voting plan and then making it work.