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Voting by mail easier, but with more options and different rules

Voters of a certain age might remember when there was basically one way to cast a ballot. You showed up at your designated poll site on Election Day, were handed a ballot and marked your choices.

Maybe you put the ballot in a box. Maybe a machine kept the ballot after you flipped the levers. But you came, you voted, you left – maybe with an “I Voted” sticker and, if you were among the first to vote early in the morning, a home-baked treat from a cheery poll worker.

Those halcyon days of poll-site voting also had their downside that sometimes depressed turnout, like bad weather, long lines or locations that were inconvenient or inaccessible for voters with physical challenges. Absentee voting was permitted, although sometimes you needed to provide a specific reason why you couldn’t show up at the polls.

Voter registration deadlines were set weeks or even months ahead of Election Day, in part so the elections office could print the voter rolls for each precinct and get them to the poll sites.

Washington switched to all-mail voting in 2011, and more Idaho voters than ever will cast absentee ballots this year. They’ll be able to mark their ballot at home, at work or anywhere else they choose, and can pause between the races on which they’ve already decided and those for which they need to do a bit research.

But voters do have to follow some specific rules on how to mark the ballot and mail it in to be sure it’s counted.

The rules are logical when you know their purpose. You fill in the ovals on the ballot with a blue or black pen, rather than using a pencil or making an X or a check mark near the name, so the scanner can read your choices.

You sign the outer envelope so an election worker can verify the ballot came from you. You put the ballot in two envelopes so the election worker who is checking your signature doesn’t see how you voted when taking the ballot out of the first envelope. (Not that they would; it’s for your confidence level.)

You mail as early as possible, or put the marked ballot and signed envelope in a drop box by the deadline, because the top reason that mail-in or absentee ballots in this year’s primaries were rejected in Spokane and Kootenai counties were that they were mailed or received too late.

If you wake up on Nov. 3 and decide you want to vote even though you aren’t registered, unlike the “good old days” you aren’t out of luck. You can even find out what it’s like to vote in person.

In Washington you can register and cast a ballot by going to the county elections office. In Idaho, you can register and vote at the poll site assigned for your address.

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