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EDITORIAL

Make a voting plan. Here’s how

Voting by mail is legitimate and secure, despite what President Trump says. But there are common pitfalls, so voters should make a plan now.

Susan Avery, of Brattleboro, Vt., looked over her November election ballot that she received in the mail before filling it out on Monday, Sept. 28. No matter what Trump says, mail-in voting is not a cause of voter fraud. It is safe and effective if voters closely follow instructions.
Susan Avery, of Brattleboro, Vt., looked over her November election ballot that she received in the mail before filling it out on Monday, Sept. 28. No matter what Trump says, mail-in voting is not a cause of voter fraud. It is safe and effective if voters closely follow instructions.Kristopher Radder/Associated Press

This editorial has been updated to clarify that it is the envelope not the mail-in ballot per se that is to be signed in Massachusetts, to eliminate any voter confusion. As previously noted, voters should follow the instructions for mail-in ballots.

Let’s state it plainly: At Tuesday’s debate, President Trump, who has continued to vote by mail in Florida, lied about the integrity of American voting systems and urged voter intimidation in an effort to hold on to power. But the power of the vote rests in your hands, not his. And protecting your vote starts with having a plan.

Voting by mail is legitimate, safe, and recommended in order to ensure that, during a pandemic, Americans still can exercise their constitutionally protected voting rights. It’s been proved to work for the full electorate of five states and by the US military since the Civil War. Trump lied when he called mail-in voting “fraud.” Full stop.

But with a record-breaking number of mail-in and early votes expected in November’s election, sporadic problems can and probably will arise, particularly for people who are voting by mail for the first time. A missed deadline, forgotten signature, or other oversight can prevent a ballot from being processed. Voters should make a voting plan now — especially if you plan to vote by mail.

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Much was made in the debate about solicited vs. unsolicited mail-in ballots. Massachusetts is a solicited-ballot state, which means that voters have to proactively request a mail-in ballot. The big lesson in Massachusetts, where more than 1 million mail-in ballots were cast in the September primary — and 18,000 ballots, less than 2 percent, were rejected for being late or incorrectly filled in — was that voters should request ballots with plenty of time to spare, send in their ballots on time, and take extra care to sign the envelopes in accordance with the instructions.

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“The main reason a ballot would be rejected would be a missing signature,” said Debra O’Malley, a spokeswoman with Secretary of State William Galvin’s office.

While election officials do check the signature of each voter against that on file, O’Malley said, you don’t have to worry that your ballot won’t count if the signature isn’t identical — just make sure it has your signature.

Other potential problems include marking ballots improperly, which causes them to be read as blank by tabulating machines. But those ballots are set aside to be hand-counted later, O’Malley said, and as long as the voter’s intent is clear, they will be counted.

The best way to protect your ballot is to request it early (Massachusetts residents can now do so online at www.MailMyBallotMA.com), read and follow all instructions, mail it in on time, and track it on the secretary of state’s website.

Voting plan flow chart.
Voting plan flow chart. Andrew Nguyen/Globe Staff

Bay State voters who requested a mail-in ballot for “All 2020 Elections” before the primary election need not reapply for the general election. If unsure, voters can go to www.TrackMyBallotMA.com to check. If a ballot is listed as “pending” or already mailed, it should arrive soon. If not, a ballot can be requested before the deadline at www.MailMyBallotMA.com.

One thing not to do: Vote in person after you’ve submitted your ballot by mail and it’s been accepted.

Except in the case of a rejected or lost mail-in ballot, if any voter tries to double-vote, “a poll worker would check the list and, if their ballot has already been received, they will be turned away,” O’Malley said.

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“We would prefer that you check the website or call your local election official to see if your ballot has been received before you just show up,” O’Malley said.

For those voting in person, either early or on Election Day, not only is it important to take COVID-19-related safety precautions but also to be alert for any voter harassment.

It is illegal to “intimidate, threaten, or coerce, any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of such other person to vote or to vote as he may choose,” or to attempt to do so. Incidents of alleged voter intimidation have occurred in states where early voting is already underway.

“Harassment of voters can take many forms,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “[It could be] private individuals inside or outside polling sites, particularly in communities of color. It could be a poll worker harassing you to produce an ID if you’re in a state where that isn’t required. It could be asking you about your citizenship. Sadly, it could be carrying a weapon.”

Clarke said anyone encountering harassment or intimidation at the polls anywhere in the nation should call 866-OUR-Vote, a hotline set up by the Lawyers’ Committee and other groups. Voters should also call local election officials and, if they feel endangered, call 911.

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After ballots are cast, the last step for voters is to be patient. The final vote counts could take a while. In the Bay State, all ballots cast in person on Election Day, Nov. 3, as well as those received by mail by the day before, will be counted on election night. All ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 but received afterward will be counted on Nov. 6 — meaning the vote totals will change after Election Day, even if some races have been called.

As for the rest of the nation, mail-in voting combined with a close election — and even legal challenges that could follow — could mean that a result will be delayed. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be trusted. It can — regardless of what the president might say.