Hundreds of people line up for an hours-long wait on the third day of early in-person voting at the Fairfax County Courthouse in Fairfax, Va, on Sept. 21, 2020.
Rod Lamkey Jr—SIPA/AP
Ideas
September 23, 2020 3:47 PM EDT
U.S. Senator Angus King is the junior senator from Maine, and serves on the following committees: Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.

For generations, Americans across the country have known the Election Day routine by heart. Wake up, head to work, make sure to vote during the day, watch the returns at night, and know the results by bedtime.

Not this year.

Like so many routines, the coronavirus pandemic has turned this time-honored tradition upside down. This year, whether you are casting your ballot for a Republican, Democrat, Independent or none of the above, we’re going all need to realize that what we know by the end of Election Night will be more like a halftime score than the final results. Just as importantly, we need to understand that lack of closure on Election Night – and potentially for days afterwards – will mean that things are working as they should to ensure every vote is counted.

The coronavirus pandemic has increased the risk of voting in person, and led to the closure of many polling places—both of which will lead to a rise in mail-in ballots, which can and often do take longer to tally. This additional time doesn’t mean that mail-in ballots are fraudulent (they’re not), or that foul play is afoot (it isn’t) – it simply means the election officials need more time to make sure every American voter is heard.

To complicate matters further, recent policy changes at the United States Postal Service have raised uncertainty about the speed with which completed ballots will be returned to election officials, an especially unfortunate change with the expectation of increased election mail. Last but certainly not least, there are the ongoing efforts of our foreign adversaries – including Russia, China, and Iran – who are seeking any opportunity to create division and sow doubts about our electoral process.

With these challenges in mind, there are three things every American – regardless of party – should keep in mind this election season:

Make a plan to vote. We’re about to hold an election unlike any other in recent memory, which means that your usual method of voting may not available, or the most effective way to have your voice heard this year. That’s why you should get all your information in order – now. You are more likely to complete your voting and be counted if you have a plan.

Double check: are you registered to vote? What are your state’s rules regarding mail-in ballots? How long in advance should you request a ballot – and should you mail it back, or bring it to a drop-off box? The answers to these questions vary state-by-state; if you have questions, there are resources like vote.gov, or your Secretary of State’s Office, or your local election official’s website, that can help you finalize your plan.

Be patient. In years past, the American public has often expected to know who our next leaders will be before the evening’s end; this year, we must abandon that notion. This is an unprecedented election, and the odds are that we will not know who wins on Election Day. It is vital that Americans understand that this process may take longer to complete than in the past, and we should prepare to wait so election officials can do their job.

This responsibility does not only belong to the voters; we must ask this of our candidates as well. I know the feeling of heading to bed without any clarity on your own election – and trust me, it’s not fun – but this is a moment bigger than any one person or office. The American people need these leaders to set a good example as the votes are being counted, regardless of whether they are winning or losing; it is vital that all candidates put the public good ahead of personal interests.

Have faith. From foreign enemies attempting to create chaos or domestic leaders seeking to prematurely declare victory – or bots online trying to divide us or distort the logistics of the 2020 voting timetable – there will likely be a number of attempts to undermine faith in America’s democratic systems before this is all done.

For the good of the nation, it is vital that we ignore these attacks and focus on the facts. Wild accusations will do nothing but further inflame tensions and deepen divisions; for the benefit of the country, we all must do our best to remain calm in the face of rising passions.

Churchill famously said that, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” This year, his words must ring in the mind of each voter. This American experiment is messy, it is imperfect, it is flawed – but it is the most resilient of self-government the world has ever seen. In the face of a storm of obstacles which threaten not only the mechanics of voting but the faith of the public in the results they’ve selected, Americans must summon the better angels of our nature. For the sake of the country we love, each of us must meet the moment’s uncertainty and confusion with preparation, faith, and patience. The results will come – and when they do, we must move forward, together, to continue our centuries-old work of striving to form a more perfect union.

 

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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