by Steven M. Kamp
Voter ID – call 866-OUR-VOTE
If you live in a voter ID state, the most pivotal part of your ability to vote is whether the pollworker (or polling place supervisor) accepts your voter identification. For instance, the Pennsylvania voter ID law states that the name on your ID must "substantially conform" to the name under which you are registered to vote. The law does not define "substantially conform." So whether you live in Pennsylvania or in one of the other 30 states with voter ID laws, please make sure the name on your voter ID matches as closely as possible your voter registration name. If you have any problem at your polling place regarding your voter ID or any other matter - don't leave! Just call 866-OUR-VOTE, where election law experts will help to solve the challenges you may be facing.
Polling Places: Still In Use East of the Left Coast
East of the Left Coast (where in Washington and Oregon all voting is only by mail, and in California it is mostly by mail), most voters can vote only by navigating the gatekeepers of an early voting site or an Election Day polling place. Get prepared now and have smooth sailing navigating the gatekeepers on Election Day or during early voting.
Check Your Registration
Call the local elections office or, if possible, check online to confirm you are registered to vote. Importantly, if you live in one of the 31 states with voter ID laws in effect, make sure the name and address of your voter registration is the same as that of your voter ID. If there’s a discrepancy, it’s likely easier to re-register NOW with the information on your voter ID. (Of course, if your voter ID has expired, it is crucial that you do whatever is necessary to update it – again, NOW.)
Because of the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dunn v. Blumstein, registration cannot close earlier than 30 days before Election Day; this date occurs no earlier than October 6 (postmark for mail registration) in Nevada, or October 8 or October 9 (where Columbus Day on October 8 is a holiday) in all states. Many states have set the registration deadline closer to Election Day. (In California, it is October 22.) In a few states, voters can register on Election Day.
Suppose You Move?
If you are already registered but plan on moving: in many states if you move on or before the registration deadline, you need to re-register at the new address. If you plan on moving after the close of registration, check with the registration office, but many states (e.g., California, Nevada, Kentucky) will allow you to vote “one last time” at the old address.
Get Your Precinct Number and Poling Place Information
If the registration office tells you that you need to re-register, do so immediately - and make sure you get a copy of the registration document. Ask the registration office for your precinct number, the precinct number polling place location, the hours of your polling place, and whether your precinct has been or will be consolidated with another (more on the latter below). In some states, different terms are used for “precinct”: “election district” in New York, “ward” in Wisconsin, “beat” in Alabama, “box” in Texas, to name several.
Consider Mail Ballot or Early Voting If Available
If your state is one of the 32 that allow no-excuses absentee or vote by mail ballots, or in-person early voting, consider using it to avoid long lines and other Election Day hassles. In many states, the ballot needs to ARRIVE at the registration office on or by a specific date before Election Day. Some states (California) allow them to be dropped off at polling places on Election Day. Washington State counts them if they are postmarked by Election Day.
Bring Identification and Other Documents to the Polling Place
If you decide to vote on Election Day, check with your Secretary of State website or call the registration office to find out what identification documents, if any, you need to bring. Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Tennessee require limited types of photo ID; otherwise, you can vote only by a provisional ballot. Seven states allow one or more specified alternatives to photo ID: Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, New Hampshire and South Dakota. Another nineteen states have non-photo ID requirements, and the remaining nineteen only require non-photo ID from first-time mail registrants.
Check also to see what other documents (such as a sample ballot or candidate list) you can bring into the polling place. Ask what happens if you arrive at the polling place just before the closing hour: in California and some other states, you can vote as long as you are in the line before the closing time.
Polling Place: the Line, Signing In, and Getting the Right Information
Once you arrive and make it through the line, the pollworkers (or precinct board, election judges, inspectors or whatever they are called) will ask you to state your name and sign the registration book. They will ask you to present identification required by law. In some states (such as Kentucky) the clerk can check “PA” or “personally acquainted.”
Once your sign-in and (where required) identification are accepted, you will be directed to the voting booth. Surprisingly, you need to watch out here: in many states, in order to save money, multiple precincts are consolidated into one polling place, and in a few states, polling places have been eliminated in favor of “voting centers” that serve multiple precincts. In Ohio in 2008, some pollworkers instructed persons who came to the right place to go to the wrong table, and through no fault of the voter the ballots were not counted until a court recently decided otherwise. In a consolidated precinct situation, the only way to avoid this problem is to have your precinct number with you and ask at what table your precinct number votes. In “early voting” states (such as Nevada), each county has multiple “early voting centers” (such as the Reno Central Library) where the pollworkers have a county-wide registration list.
Vote a Provisional Ballot If You Cannot Vote a Regular Ballot
Do not leave without voting, unless you are directed to go to another precinct based on your address. If the pollworkers cannot find your name on the registration list, in all states you have a right to vote a provisional ballot, at least for federal offices (e.g., Nevada, Kentucky) or all offices (e.g., California). You need to fill out the provisional ballot envelope carefully to make sure your signature, name and address accurately match your registration. In some states, in order for your provisional ballot to be counted you will need to present identification documents required under your state’s voter ID law to your local election board within a specified period after the election (typically three days, albeit six days in Pennsylvania).
Provisional ballots are not “placebo ballots”, at least not in California. Counting provisionals, counting other Election Day delivered ballots, and reconstructing damaged ballots is the primary work done by California registrars in the 28 days between Election Day and the official canvass deadline. In the November 2006 general election, the Los Angeles County Registrar counted as valid 97,925 of the 110,915 provisional ballots it issued for that election, an 88.3% validity rate.