In the 53 years since signing my voter’s registration card, I’ve never questioned my right to vote, my access to the ballot or the validity of results from any election. I have always trusted the voting system.

This presidential election has made me question my assumptions. An atypical president stands for reelection. Partisan politics has been weaponized and a pandemic challenges access to the ballot and voting sites. I want to make sure my vote counts this election. I took my questions to the experts. Here’s some of what I learned:

1.  Signature discrepancies can be a problem. My signature on the outside of the ballot must pass scrutiny before my ballot envelope is even opened. (My old, careful, youthful voting card signature bears no relation to my current scrawl, should I worry?) Douglas County Auditor Thad Duval said that if I’d never been notified during any election cycle that there was a problem with my signature, then not to worry.

2. Our ballots will be mailed mid-week for Chelan and Douglas counties. They go out by bulk mail and should arrive in 5 -10 days. Duval said if your ballot hasn’t arrived by Oct. 21, call your auditor’s office. Return ballots must have a Nov. 3 postmark. Our mail travels to Spokane to be postmarked. The state recommends you mail in your ballot by Oct. 26.

3. Sign the outside of the ballot envelope! The most common ballot error in Washington is failure to sign the outside of the ballot envelopes. Each voter is assigned a bar code that is printed on the ballot. If there is a problem, the election center matches the bar code to the voter on file, sends a letter and a call alerting the voter there is a problem with their ballot.

4. Once the signature is validated, the ballot is opened. Envelopes go to one pile and the ballot goes to another. The ballot is now totally separated from my name. No one ever knows how I voted, only that I did vote. Votes are machine scanned, so follow the marking instructions carefully. Envelopes are bundled up in one pile, and paper ballots in another, all stored for 22 months. Once my ballot’s envelope code and signature are scanned into the system, I can track it to see when it is received. Ballots are processed as soon as they arrive at the courthouse. The sooner my ballot arrives, the more time I have to be notified if there is a problem.

5. If I don’t get my ballot, I can go to the state’s election website and print out a ballot and an oath document swearing the accuracy of my vote. From there, my ballot is treated the same as any other, or I can go to the courthouse to vote. The first ballot received from me is the one that is counted.

6. All mail-in ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3 or dropped in a Voter’s Ballot Drop Box before 8 p.m. on Nov. 3. In Chelan Country, drop boxes are stationed outside libraries, with two more at the County Courthouse, one inside and a new one under the breezeway. In Douglas County, the drop boxes are outside city halls.

7. Counties do not certify their elections until Nov. 24. Ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 must reach the election center by Nov. 23 to be counted.

8. Our county tabulating machines are not hooked up to the internet. The results are sent to Olympia electronically and followed up by a fax to make sure there is no electronic tampering of our county totals. The state has until Dec. 3 to certify the state election.

Nationwide, counting paper ballots takes time. Every state has different voting rules and more Americans than ever will be voting by mail because of the pandemic.

My vote will count if I follow directions carefully. This year, we won’t know the projected winners immediately. I’m not going to panic when I don’t know who won election night. I’ll need to be patient as we all wait for the states to certify their results.

karen dawn dean is an artist who lives in Wenatchee.