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File photo by Alyssa Pointer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP / An early voter who wore gloves to cast her ballot during Georgia's primary election shows off her sticker.

Election Day is seven weeks and six days from today.

Most of us have an Election Day ritual: We go to our polling place, cue up in line, exchange pleasantries with fellow voters and poll workers, fill out our ballots at a small desk or booth, get our "I voted" sticker and put it on to show we've done our civic duty.

Increasingly, however, proving our right to vote has gotten harder. We've seen poll-worker confusion, our polling places have changed and sometimes the voting machines break. This year we even have a pandemic, along with a Postal Service slow-down and rules that change almost weekly as lawsuits challenge claims of perceived voter suppression or feared voter fraud.

In the span of just two or three months, for instance, Tennesseans were told by a judge that we could apply to vote absentee using fear of COVID-19 as an excuse, then we were told by another set of judges that we couldn't, then we were told again that we could, and Tennessee election officials had to make it clear on ballot requests that we could cite COVID-19 concern under certain circumstances.

No matter your state, there's a caveat: Time is of the essence. More people than ever are planning to vote by mail or absentee ballot, even as recent so-called efficiency moves by the U.S. Postal Service have prompted government warnings that postal delivery may be slowed to the point that ballots won't be received by voters and returned to election officials in time to be counted.

Hamilton County election officials, for instance, received an unprecedented 9,990 applications for absentee ballots in the Aug. 6 election. Of those, 8,326 were returned by voters — "a substantial increase over the 537 received during the 2016 August primary," according to our administrator of elections, Kerry Steelman.

Of the returned ballots, only 58 were rejected, due to a signature deficiency. Most were not signed, Steelman said. The voters were immediately contacted and 26 of them returned a replacement ballot with the deficiency corrected, he said.

Voters must apply again for absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 general election, and that deadline is Oct. 27. As of Thursday, the officials here had, since Aug. 5, received about 4,000 new requests.

We offer here a primer for voters in our tri-state region.

 

TENNESSEE

In Tennessee, voters can find their county election commissions online at the Tennessee Department of State at this website: tnsos.org/elections/election_commissions.php

The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 5. You may apply online, by mail or in person to your county election commission.

Early in-person voting begins Oct. 14 and continues through Oct. 29, but dates and times vary by county.

Voter ID laws are strict. At the polls, you must show a government-issued photo ID or sign an affidavit swearing that you are too poor to obtain one.

To vote absentee, you can download an application from your county commission office. In Hamilton County the website is elect.hamiltontn.gov. Within the application you must cite an excuse, and there is a list of reasons you may check, including "I am hospitalized, ill or physically disabled and unable to appear at my polling place to vote (this includes persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which in their determination render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it)." There is a similar box to check if you are a caretaker of someone with those conditions.

You must mail your ballot back either by the U.S. Postal Service or some courier service such as FedEx. By state law, there are no ballot drop boxes in Tennessee. You can track your absentee ballot request online through your county election commission office.

 

GEORGIA

In the Peach State, voters can find information at sos.ga.gov about voting and may apply there to absentee vote.

The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 5.

Early in-person voting begins statewide by Oct. 12, but remaining dates and hours vary by county

The Georgia voter ID law is strict, and at the polls, you must show a government-issued photo ID.

To vote by mail, no excuse is needed, but Georgia law requires election officials to check the signature on each absentee ballot against the voter's signature on file. You may drop your ballot off at your county registrar's office, or a drop box if your county offers it. If you choose to mail your ballot, you should track its progress online to ensure it is received.

 

ALABAMA

The deadline to register is Oct. 19. You may do so online, by mail or in person at a board of registrars. A list of absentee election managers can be found at sos.alabama.gov.

There is no early in-person voting.

At the polls, the voter ID law is strict and you must show a government-issued photo ID unless two election officials personally attest to your identity.

To vote by mail an excuse is required, though all voters can cite fear of COVID-19. Absentee ballots must be signed by two witnesses or a notary public. When returning your ballot, you will need to include a photocopy of your ID. Each county has a separate application form and a different absentee election manager.

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