THE USE OF absentee ballots exploded during the pandemic. Does this foretell how we’re going to see state and national elections play out in the future? Should we expect this phenomenon to happen again in 2022 and ’24?

More than 103 million people cast their ballots early in the 2020 Presidential Election, which saw a record 160 million votes cast. That was 74% of the total voter turnout in the 2016 election. Several key swing states had more people vote early than voted in total in 2016.

If this trend is our future, there needs to be a few state laws changed to reflect a national standard. A recent poll showed that as many as 40% of Americans (Democrats, Republicans and Independents) didn’t believe the elections were totally free and fair, but they didn’t believe the discrepancies were enough to change the outcome.

Skeptical voters need to be assured ballots are not being illegally harvested, that collection boxes are not being stuffed and that the ballots are being verified as authentic.

Voting should not be so easy as to welcome fraud or abuse. The goal is to count every legal vote and to not allow any vote that would not meet reasonable inspection. It is not fair or equitable for 50 states to have 50 different rules for federal elections. Officials need to make voting standards uniform.

The state of Georgia just concluded a high-stakes Senate runoff election for its two seats Jan. 5. There was record spending on behalf of the four candidates. Early in-person voting began Dec. 14 and more than 1.2 million voters requested absentee ballots. More than 2 million actually voted early. They had until Jan. 1 to return those ballots.

That means voting actually took place over a 22-day period. This pandemic year has changed everything. In the future, will 70% of voters vote early via in-person, mail-in or absentee ballots?

This is like setting the date of the NFL Super Bowl for Feb. 7. Then, playing the first quarter of the game Jan. 17, the second quarter Jan. 24, the third quarter Jan. 31 and the final quarter Feb. 7. Should the fourth quarter end in a tie, the two teams would play the overtime period Feb. 14. That would be crazy.

Every state offers the opportunity to vote early. People like and need this option, but no one foresaw the option going nuclear. Early voting works for people who have travel plans, medical issues and employment obligations. It also allows people to avoid long lines and crowded polling stations. It helps negate attempts by nefarious people to suppress voting.

Unanticipated 2020 circumstances will have ripple effects for many future election cycles. This will change how candidates campaign. Early voters will be making decisions without having all the information. They will miss debates and late-breaking developments.

If this is to be the new normal, states should set standard rules and deadlines.

The following is one idea for describing absentee voting.

An eligible voter showing good cause shall be entitled to vote by absentee ballot provided they petition for a ballot at the designated place no more than one month and no less than two weeks before a federal election. States should not mass mail ballots to addresses unsolicited.

The law should require all mail-in ballots be received at a polling station by a drop-dead deadline one week before the official election day. Early ballots should be counted beginning 10 days before the election day to allow for verification of authenticity. The tallies should be kept secret until after the polls close election day.

If we’re going to allow mass early voting, we’re going to have to expect costly increases for personnel and security measures, but it’s a fact whether it’s before election day or after.