On this episode of "Battleground: Ballot Box," we talk about the mail, specifically voting by mail. It is something a record 1.1 million Georgians did in the June primary and at least a million more plan to do for November's election.

It’s a new phenomenon for Peach State voters, and the combination of COVID-19 and a tightly contested election means it’s more important for voters to understand the do’s and don’ts of absentee voting.

There’s disinformation from President Trump, fears of a postal slowdown and plenty of ways ballots can be rejected for not following rules to a "T."

Georgians can return their absentee ballots one of three ways: in person to their county elections office, in a new secure 24/7 drop box or through the good old-fashioned mailbox.

We’ll start with one of the biggest and most important questions many people have: Should we trust sending our sacred vote through the mail?

Grace Panetta, a politics reporter for Business Insider who covers elections, said overall, yes, because the Postal Service has a massive capacity for handling mail — even election mail.

"The Postal Service has just immense capacity for processing mail in general that we can't even imagine," she said. "They estimate that they deliver over 180 million pieces of First-Class mail every day, so even if all the United States' voting eligible population voted by mail, that would still be only a little bit more than what they process on a daily basis."

Panetta has been covering the ins and outs of the USPS this year, and said that while voters should not worry about the state of the post office, there is a big caveat: You have to give enough time for your ballot to be delivered.

"Because really, the only way that your ballot won't get delivered on time is if you wait until the very last minute to mail it," she said. "First-Class mail each way takes about two to five days to process." 

In Georgia, that means requesting and returning your ballot early, even though the law technically gives you more time. 

Right now, you can request a ballot up until Oct. 30.

But that application has to be received, the ballot has to be prepared, mailed, filled out and returned before the deadline a couple days later.

Panetta says there are bigger-picture changes happening with the postal service that are worth noting, but have been morphed into misinformation that might make you trust the mail less. 

New Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Republican donor and logistics executive, instituted a number of cost-cutting measures including limiting overtime and limiting extra trips. 

"But overall, the situation got very muddled and there was a lot of misinformation going around, particularly about the removal of sorting machines and blue collection boxes," Panetta said. "There were so many viral articles and viral tweets and social media posts about people raising panic. Someone saw a truck of blue collection boxes being moved. It must be a conspiracy to undermine the election."

Many of those posts were quickly debunked. And the truth was much more boring:

"The U.S. Postal Service has seen massively declining First-Class mail volume since pretty much the Great Recession,” she said.

Still, Georgia and pretty much every other state has seen an increase in voting by mail, even before the pandemic caused many voters to switch voting methods to one that avoids in-person contact. That puts additional strain on elections officials.

In 2016, about 60% of Americans voted in-person on Election Day and about a quarter voted absentee by mail — much of that coming from states that run all-mail elections like Oregon and Colorado. 

That year, more than half of the U.S. saw fewer than 10% of votes cast by mail, Georgia included. A record vote-by-mail push in 2020 is "a massive, massive change," Panetta said.

Then, there are some complications with court cases seeking to make absentee voting easier — or harder — for November’s election.

In Georgia, a federal judge ruled that officials must accept ballots that are postmarked by Election Day — Nov. 3 — and received by county elections officials by Friday, Nov. 6.

"There was a similar decision in Pennsylvania and in Michigan," Panetta said. "And those are actually quite significant."

Pennsylvania is similar to Georgia, where the judge said if there's evidence the ballot was mailed by Nov. 3, they have to be accepted if they arrive by the Friday, Nov. 6 deadline. In Michigan, a judge ruled that election officials have to accept ballots that are postmarked by Nov. 2 and arrive up to 14 days later.

These changes are extremely important, Panetta said, because one of the most common reasons ballots get rejected every year is for arriving past a deadline. In Georgia, thousands of ballots did not count in the June primary because they were not returned on time.

Then there are some states, including Georgia, that have changed rules to make it easier to vote absentee and easier for officials to count them.

You can request your ballot online at ballotrequest.sos.ga.gov and track the status of your ballot throughout the process at georgia.ballottrax.net.

Also, most counties in Georgia have at least one secure drop box that is monitored 24/7 as a new option to return the ballot without dealing with people or the postal service.

And counties can begin processing absentee ballots two weeks before Election Day, opening up the envelopes and doing everything but tabulating who the votes are for.

But what happens if something goes wrong and officials reject your ballot? Don’t despair.

Every state requires you to sign the outside of your ballot envelope, and more than 30 use what is called signature matching, which checks that signature against one on file to ensure the same person that requested the ballot returned it.

"Also, in most states that do use signature matching or require a witness signature also have a cure process, where if there's an issue with a voter's ballot, if there's a missing witness signature or there's a big discrepancy in their signature, the voter is notified and given a chance to correct the error and fix their ballot," Panetta said.

So when you get your absentee ballot (because you’ve requested it early!) make sure to fill out your choices by completely filling in the ovals.

Georgia law explicitly says that is the way you must fill out the ballot. No check marks, smiley faces, or other incomplete marks are allowed, and that's because when your ballot is tabulated, the scanner and voting system measures how much of that oval is filled to determine what is a vote.

And while a new state rule lowers the threshold of what counts as a vote and what gets sent to a team of human reviewers, taking that extra step will make sure there are no issues.

"Basically you just want to sign, seal and deliver your ballot," Panetta said. "Make sure you filled out the instructions and everything and then you just get it back within plenty of time because late arrival is one of the biggest reasons why ballots are rejected.”

Voting by mail is still a new concept for most voters, and it’s OK to be a little intimidated by it. Not everyone feels comfortable with it, and some still prefer voting early in person or on Election Day. But state and local officials say for this election, if you can vote by mail, you should — and do so as early as possible. 

As a reminder, you can apply for an absentee ballot online, or by submitting a paper form through email or fax to your county elections office, or by dropping it off to them in person.

And to return your ballot, you can drop it in the mail, use a secure drop box or return it directly to your county elections office.

If you requested a ballot and it never came or you changed your mind, be prepared for your in-person voting experience to take a little longer, because you have to fill out an affidavit saying you no longer want to vote by mail and you haven’t already voted that way.

And if you have any questions or concerns voting this way — please reach out.

Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show gpb.org/battleground or anywhere you get podcasts.

Please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Our editor is Wayne Drash, our intern is Eva Rothenberg, our show is mixed by Jesse Nighswonger and the director of podcasting is Sean Powers.