Voters in suburban Henrico's Short Pump precinct cast their ballots. The area saw a surge in Democratic voters after Trump's 2016 election. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Over the next 50 days, we have the chance to vote in arguably the most consequential election in American history at a time when doing so carries significant personal risk.

As scary as the headlines surrounding this election have been, there’s no need to be afraid if you arm yourself with some reliable information.

It’s a daunting prospect to wait for hours in queues that can stretch the better part of a block, possibly in the cold and rain, and then mingle inside polling places with the coronavirus pandemic raging and flu season aborning. That’s particularly true for the elderly or those in compromised health, and presidential elections consistently draw the largest voter turnouts.

States have made adaptations to the pandemic and, while they afford voters more options, they’ve created some confusion that is magnified to varying degrees depending on the cable talking heads or social media you watch. There are active campaigns of disinformation and intimidation from sources foreign and domestic.

Unsavory foreign interests are meddling in our elections and, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, backing different campaigns. Russia is practicing a suite of dark arts including social media trolls, disinformation campaigns and hacking targeting the campaign of Democrat Joe Biden, much as the kind aimed at the 2016 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Intelligence analysts believe China and Iraq are acting in support of Biden, though not with the focus and vigor Russia exerts for Trump. But for these totalitarian regimes, undermining America’s standing globally and confidence in its institutions of democracy at home is a win.

Knowledge is our shield. You can protect yourself and your vote if you know your options, tune out the distractions and know where to look for authoritative, firsthand information.

“Get your information directly from the people who know,” said Chris Piper, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections.

Virginia has a proven system in place that allows every voter to safely register (if you have not yet done so) and cast a ballot in the run-up to the Nov. 3 election. The last day to register to vote in this fall’s election is Oct. 13.

Vote absentee

Thanks to a new state law, Virginians may cast absentee ballots for any reason ― or no reason at all. Before July 1, Virginians had to pick from a limited menu of excuses (traveling, business obligations, illness, etc.) as to why they could not vote in person at their precinct on Election Day. Now, you can vote absentee by mail or vote early in person at your city or county registrar’s office or satellite voting location if you want to avoid the travel, perils and hassles of election-day voting.

This is not the same thing as universal mail-in voting, recently much in the news and fiercely derided by Trump and his allies. The president himself votes absentee by mail.

In Virginia, a registered voter must request an absentee ballot. In states with universal mail-in voting, ballots are automatically mailed to registered voters whether they are requested or not. Five states with histories of electing Democrats and Republicans ― Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington ― have successfully done universal mail voting for years. Twenty-two states have expanded universal mail-voting options temporarily to protect voters from the pandemic: 17 of them are mailing out absentee ballot applications to registered voters; five – California, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey and Vermont – automatically send ballots to registered voters without their having to apply.

A Virginia voter can apply online for a mail-in absentee ballot or seek assistance by calling the registrar’s office for your locality. Those leery of completing an application online can download an application form from the Virginia Department of Elections, print it, complete it and return the application to their registrar’s office by fax, email or by the U.S. Postal Service. The deadline for requesting absentee applications is 5 p.m. on Oct. 23. To be valid and counted, mailed Virginia ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3. They can be counted if received through the mail by Nov. 6, Piper said.

This is important: don’t push the deadlines. Apply now. Complete your ballot as soon as you receive it and put it in the mail immediately to ensure that the intentionally hamstrung Postal Service has ample time to deliver your ballot by Election Day. Given that the Postal Service has recommended allowing 15 days to return ballots by mail, a ballot mailed on Tuesday, Nov. 3 has little chance of being delivered three days later. Finally, make sure you have sufficient stamps for your envelope.

Voters can track their absentee ballot applications status online and then, using a unique barcode track the progress of their actual mail-in ballots.  

Early Voting In Person

Though mail voting has a solid track record, there’s still something about marking a ballot at a polling station, turning it over to the official on-site and walking out with one of those “I Voted!” lapel stickers. In-person early voting begins Sept. 18, the same day that mail-in ballots will be sent to those who have applied for them. The last day for in-person early voting is Saturday, Oct. 31.

To vote in person, there is no need to submit an application. Just look up your registrar’s office or satellite voting facility in large localities, go there and be sure to bring along appropriate identification or be prepared to sign a statement affirming your identity. Because some offices may be operating with limited staff and abbreviated business hours because of the coronavirus, it’s a good idea to call in advance to check on office hours and ask whether it’s necessary to make an appointment.

Vote on Election Day

For the first time, Election Day is an official state holiday in Virginia. Polls open at 6 a.m. Nov. 3 and close at 7 p.m. Anyone in line by the time the polls close will be allowed to cast a ballot.

Make sure you know where your current polling place is. You can look it up online or call your local registrar’s office in the days leading up to the election if you don’t have Internet access.

Don’t trust unsolicited communications on Election Day or the few days immediately before. They are falsehoods intended to stop you from voting. Among the classic tricks are trying to convince you that the election has been postponed, that your polling place has moved, or maybe that there is a warrant for your arrest and that police will be waiting for you at your voting precinct. They come in the form of phone calls, emails, printed fliers, text messages, letters and targeted social media posts.

Disregard them and go to your polling place. Tune in to a trusted local TV or radio station: if a fire or flood or other emergency necessitates a change in polling places or hours, that would be reported. Or, better, call your registrar or the State Department of Elections directly and, as Piper said, ask those who know. The toll-free state elections help line is (800) 552-9745; TTY 711.

Finally, don’t let anyone intimidate you or turn you around. Any effort to impede your access to a ballot is a crime and you should report it immediately to election officers inside the polling place who know how to effectively deal with it and ensure that your vote is cast and counted.

CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correct the description of the process for requesting an absentee ballot.