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Six ways to make sure your vote counts and help the November election go smoothly

Elena O'Malley drops off her mail in ballot at City Hall in Boston during the primary election on Sept. 1.  (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Elena O'Malley drops off her mail in ballot at City Hall in Boston during the primary election on Sept. 1. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

This year’s presidential election is unfolding amid a pandemic, mail delays, and baseless accusations from President Trump about voter fraud that have put the nation’s voting system under unprecedented stress. But election experts said there are steps you can take to help the system work smoothly—and, most importantly, to make sure your vote is counted.

1) Cast your ballot early

The most important thing you can do is vote early, whether by mail or in person.

Thirty-nine states—including Massachusetts—and the District of Columbia offer in-person early voting, which is a good way to avoid crowds on Election Day.

If you are not comfortable going into a polling place, or your state doesn’t offer early voting, experts recommend voting by mail. But it is critical to request a mail-in or absentee ballot as early as possible.

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All Massachusetts registered voters were sent mail-in ballot applications this summer. Additional applications will be sent out this month to those who have not already requested a mail-in ballot. The application must be returned no later than Oct. 28. But experts note that doesn’t leave much time to get the ballot and then return it or get it postmarked by Election Day on Nov. 3.

Once you’ve filled out your ballot, consider leaving it in a secure election dropbox instead of putting it back in the mail if that is an option in your community. Doing so allows you to avoid potential mail delays as well as limit possible coronavirus exposure.

“If you get your ballot and return it by drop box, that means there’s less interaction with you and other people,” said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida associate political science professor.

2) Fill out your ballot carefully

Voting by mail can be complicated, depending on the state you’re in.

There is the ballot itself. There might be an outer envelope, which you and any witnesses your state requires need to sign (Massachusetts has no witness requirement). Then there could be a third “secrecy sleeve" that the ballot goes in before you put it in the envelope.

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So when you fill out your ballot, take time to do it carefully, paying special attention to the outer envelope, which can often be fodder for legal challenges if signatures or other information are illegible or missing.

“I expect that there are going to be a lot of people inadvertently disenfranchised,” said Rick Hasen, who studies election law at the University of California, Irvine.

That’s another reason to vote by mail early. In some jurisdictions, officials who spot problems with the outer envelope will send it back so you can fix it. But that process takes time.

“If we can’t read their name, and we can’t figure out who their witness is, then we try to return it to them or if we have a phone number, we call them,” said Claire Woodall-Vogg, the top elections official in Milwaukee, where her staff have corrected stacks of envelopes in red pen.

3) Track your ballot

If you request an absentee or mail-in ballot and it doesn’t arrive, contact your elections officials, who can cancel it and send you another one.

Once you mail back your ballot or put it in a drop box, 39 states plus Washington, DC, allow you to track it online so you can be sure it was received and processed. Massachusetts voters can track theirs here.

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Again, if there is a problem, you can notify local elections officials. If something goes wrong with your mail-in ballot, they can reissue it, or you can vote in-person instead.

4) Don’t trust everything on the internet

Since the 2016 presidential election, experts say, Russian actors have sought to dissuade people—particularly Black and Latino voters—from casting ballots by using misinformation to sow confusion over the election process, temper enthusiasm for Democratic candidates and foster disillusion in the electoral system with messages that claim your vote won’t count. On top of that, Trump has made numerous unfounded claims about election fraud.

Don’t fall for memes, tweets, Whatsapp text chains and other online posts alleging you can text or tweet your vote from home. That is not possible in any state. And be wary of claims that both presidential candidates “are the same” or that urge you to leave the top of the ticket blank, said Shireen Mitchell, founder of the advocacy group Stop Online Violence Against Women. Both are classic examples of disinformation tactics used by Russian actors and picked up by political strategists here at home.

Experts said the best way to counter disinformation is by knowing how to find the facts, like on state and local government websites. When you encounter harmful material, don’t spread it. Alert the site where it was posted, as well as advocacy groups like Mitchell’s, Common Cause or Color of Change, and researchers, such as those at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Information Disorder Lab.

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“The fact that this much energy is going to suppress the Black vote—there is a reason for it,” Mitchell said. “Your vote is important.”

5) Be prepared for polling places to look different—and help if you can

Take the time to look up your polling place. It might be different than usual because the pandemic has led some schools, community centers and other sites to opt out this year. Some jurisdictions are switching to larger venues that allow for more social distancing; you might even find yourself voting in a basketball stadium.

The lines may appear longer because of social distancing, and you may find fewer voting booths because of social distancing. Poll-workers will likely be separated from you with plexiglass shields or other dividers, and they will be equipped with hand sanitizer and wipes.

Many older people are reluctant to serve as poll workers because they face higher risks of complications from COVID-19, and officials have been actively recruiting new—and younger—workers. You may be able to contribute to a smoother Election Day by joining them.

6) Be patient

If the 2020 election is close, it’s highly unlikely a winner will be projected on Election Night, and it could take days, or even weeks, for legal challenges, recounts and canvassing of late-arriving mail-in ballots to be completed and a victor declared.

“We have to have this recognition,” said Trey Grayson, a Republican who is the former secretary of state of Kentucky. “It’s just going to take longer.”

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Stay calm and patient as the votes are counted, and know that elections officials are used to taking days to certify official results as they count ballots from members of the military and overseas voters in every election. Don’t be fooled by those who claim any delay is suspicious.

“If results are not posted by the 10 o’clock news on the East Coast…that doesn’t mean there’s a fraudulent election, there’s still a process happening,” said Amber McReynolds, the CEO of National Vote at Home Institute and former director of elections in Denver. “We’ve never certified the election results on election night.”



Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood. Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin. Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa.