Nothing feels more American than casting a ballot on Election Day, proudly emerging from your neighborhood polling place with your “I Voted” sticker. 

Don’t count on being able to do it this November.

COVID-19 threw spring primary elections into chaos in Illinois and elsewhere, as officials scrambled to minimize the risks to voters and poll workers. Many people stood in line for hours, risking their health to exercise their right to vote. Many others stayed home. 

It would be foolish to assume the virus won’t be a threat on Nov. 3. This year, voters need a Plan B.

The Illinois General Assembly passed an emergency elections bill to help ensure that anyone who wants to vote can do so safely. The measure, signed into law last month by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, applies only to the 2020 general election. 

Voters: Know your options and prepare —  starting now.

Perhaps most significantly, the law provides for a dramatic expansion of vote by mail. In a normal year, voters apply for mail ballots starting in early August. This year, the application window opened in mid-June. That gives voters more time to request a ballot, and election authorities more time to respond to what they hope will be a big demand.

As many as 5 million voters will receive applications without even asking. The new law requires local elections authorities to send an application to all who voted in any of the last three elections. Anyone who registered to vote (or updated their address) after the March 17 primary can also get an application automatically.

If you’re not in one of those groups, you can visit the Illinois State Board of Elections web site or contact your local election authority to download an application (or in some cases to apply online).

Note that these are applications, not ballots. Ballots will be mailed starting Sept. 24 — but only to those who have returned applications.

Once you get the ballot, you can mark it and mail it, and you’re done — just be sure it’s postmarked by Nov. 3. 

Or you can hold onto it as a fallback if your Plan A is to vote in person on Election Day. 

Obtaining a mail ballot doesn’t preclude you from voting in person if it turns out you’re able. Just surrender it at your polling place and vote as usual. (If you’ve lost it or never received it, you’ll have to sign an affidavit and may have to cast a provisional ballot.)

Not everyone can vote by mail. Some people need assistance in person. Some don’t have a reliable mailing address. Some don’t trust the post office. The more people who vote by mail, the safer it will be for those who need to vote in person.

To protect in-person voting, the law also codifies state health department guidelines and allows (but doesn’t require) election authorities to provide curbside voting and dropboxes for mail ballots. It declares Nov. 3 a state holiday so that public buildings can be used for socially distanced polling places, and it lowers the age for election judges to 16 to reduce reliance on vulnerable retirees. 

It also requires each jurisdiction to provide at least one “super site” on Election Day, available to all voters, regardless of their precinct. Check with your local election authority so you’ll know where to vote if your regular polling place is unexpectedly closed.

The law also includes extended hours to encourage early in-person voting before Election Day. Those early voting sites will be open no later than Oct. 19, from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends.

This longer voting period takes the pressure off polling places on Election Day and could become increasingly attractive if COVID-19 is on the rise again in the fall. You can pick a day that allows you to avoid bad weather and long lines, then pop in and do your civic duty.

Don’t forget to collect your “I Voted” sticker. 

This column was published in the State Journal-Register.