By Tom Baxter

Last week, I cast an early vote in the special election to determine who fills the empty 5th Congressional District seat for the last few weeks of this year.

Meaning no disrespect to the seven candidates who have spent considerable resources vying for this brief tenure in office, I did this mostly for practice. I wanted to check out the new voting machines (Pro tip: don’t fold that white sheet of paper you’re handed) and to see how COVID restrictions affected the process.

There were only a couple other people voting when I was there, but a poll worker told me there had been 70 or 80 that day. If that many people turn out on one day of early voting in one race as nearly meaningless as this, it means that a new voting pattern has taken root. We can be confident the early voting turnout for the Nov. 3 election will surpass anything we’ve seen.

A couple of days later, my wife and I got the absentee ballots we’d requested online from the secretary of state’s website. That’s how we had intended to vote, and it may be that we will. But as the big election approaches we find ourselves, like a lot of voters, with several options and just a small, deeply troubling, sliver of a doubt.

We could vote on Election Day, as we have in every presidential election for decades. We could during the three-week-long early in-person voting period which begins Oct. 12. We could fill out an absentee ballot and put it in one of the designated drop boxes, or we could put the ballot in the mail.

Any of these options should work just fine. I don’t worry very much about stories like the one in which election officials found a programming error which could have caused a problem in the ballot for the U.S. Senate jungle primary. Problems like that can be corrected.

But for years, from the introduction of electronic and mail-in voting to the contested 2000 election, to the increasing polarization of politics, just the smallest sliver of doubt has grown in the minds of voters about whether they really will be counted. There’s a lot of brush around the voting process to set afire, and this year President Trump lit it.

“We’ve never had any fraud in Florida,” Charles T. Wells, who was chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court during the Bush-Gore dispute following the 2000 election said on “Morning Joe” Monday. “We had mechanical mistakes… We had a slew of things that should have been fixed which now have been fixed.”

But over time a larger slew of things has gone unfixed about the way we vote, eroding faith in the system with the active encouragement of partisan voices.

This sliver of doubt goes far past the most avid conspiracy theorists. Even people who have faith that the election system works will naturally ask, when faced with a variety of voting choices, which one is safest? Which one is best?

Some will also ask which method is smartest strategically, although that can be a tricky question. For months, Facebook memes have exhorted Trump voters to ignite a viral movement around voting on Election Day, only to have the Trump campaign encourage voters in states like Florida to mail in their ballots early. Democrats have staunchly defended the validity of mail-in voting, but as the election nears some Democrats are promoting early on-site voting.

All the speculation about possible attempts to shut off voting after Election Day has caused voters to worry that their votes may not be counted. But some states count their mail-in votes before Election Day, and not many voters know the situation in their states.

Election Day itself will be a severe test for a COVID-affected system of poll workers and election officials, not to mention the heightened possibility of violence at some voting places.

This is going to be a difficult election, but the truth is that your vote is no less likely to be counted one way than the other. We have more choices for how we vote, and most of them work pretty much the way they’re supposed to. Were it not for the insidious partisanship which has poisoned the system in so many ways, that should be something to celebrate.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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