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Opinion Ignore the attacks on mail-in balloting. Here’s how to make the election results unassailably fair.

A Harris County election worker prepares mail-in ballots on Sept. 29 in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Claudia Balducci is chair of the Metropolitan King County Council in Washington state. Julie Wise is the King County director of elections.

The 2020 election may well define the next era not only of American politics but also American life. Millions of people, from across the political spectrum, sense that the stakes have never been higher in any election during their lifetimes. Yet the election’s arrival amid a pandemic means that tens of millions of Americans will be voting in an unfamiliar way: by mail.

While some politicians and others lately have maligned mail-in ballots, we know from our own experience that they’re wrong. We oversee the largest jurisdiction in the nation that votes entirely by mail — a county, including Seattle, that is more populous than 15 states. We have conducted all-mail voting for over a decade.

No jurisdiction can be expected to upend its entire elections system virtually overnight without some challenges. In King County, we know this from experience. But even with the election less than three weeks away, and with mail-in balloting already underway in many areas, there are steps that election officials, the media and citizens themselves can take to make sure that the election delivers results deemed unassailably accurate and fair, even to the most partisan among us.

Let’s start here: Vote-by-mail is hardly a novel concept. Local elections officials across the United States already have experience handling mail ballots. Whether it’s a student abroad or a U.S. Marine serving overseas, Americans have cast ballots by mail for more than 150 years. The country knows how to do this.

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This year, the question is just one of magnitude. The amount of mail ballots will be record-shattering, and determining the final results will require patience. Eager candidates must resist the temptation to declare an early victory or delegitimize the results, no matter what the initial numbers look like. Patience is hardly an American virtue, but the country is going to need it in spades.

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center warns that the president is doing the work of our foreign adversaries by undermining the legitimacy of the U.S. election. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evan Vucci/AP/The Washington Post)

The media has a vital role to play in this. News outlets, large and small, should already be talking with elections officials and reporting on how and when ballots will be processed, how long it will take and when to expect results.

Similarly, elections officials should establish easily reachable points of contact for the media so that information and updates can quickly reach the public. Mail-in ballots don’t all arrive on the same day, so early tallies may drastically differ from final results. In King County, it takes at least through the Friday after Election Day to have a clear idea on close races even in a normal election year. The media must help the candidates and the public understand that when counts go on beyond the first night, that isn’t evidence of fraud or incompetence. It’s just logistics and process.

Meanwhile, voters can help by voting early. In many states, the sooner their votes are mailed in or dropped off (in jurisdictions using secure ballot drop boxes), the sooner they are likely to be counted, thus getting results faster. But not all states allow votes to be counted before Election Day, so that’s another piece that voters need to be clearly informed about.

Lawmakers are also essential to helping make vote-by-mail successful. Elected officials must share information and help their constituents understand and navigate the process. In those places where early ballot-counting is not allowed, officials should be working to change those laws so elections officials can get started early with the heavy lift of processing all those ballots. In many places, emergency legislative action, an executive order or an emergency rule change could happen fairly quickly. There is no reason that election offices should not be allowed to begin processing ballots as soon as they are received.

Elections agencies of course have a critical role in the 2020 contest. They have the power to take steps such as centralizing elections operations to cut costs, reduce risks and increase transparency. They know what it takes to process the absentee ballots they already see, so they can take the steps to scale up those operations. In King County, our elections department has been hiring for over a month to expand our regular team, we will still be sending job-offer letters through this week and continuing to train into next week, depending on the job.

With another coronavirus stimulus package seemingly delayed until after Election Day, states and counties are on their own to make this monumental mail-in election work. It certainly can be done, but time is getting short and an all-out effort is vital to making this election under unprecedented conditions a success.

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