There are three things every voter should do before they head to the polls, election experts agree: Check to make sure you’re registered to vote at your current address, find out where your polling place is and find out what ID you’ll need when you go to cast your ballot.
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You’ll not only save yourself time, you’ll save yourself some aggravation. And there’s sure to be some of that on Election Day, with a record turnout predicted nationwide.
Every state has different requirements for the kind of identification voters must have in hand at the polls. The easiest way to find what you’ll need is to start with two non-partisan Web sites: canivote.org, run by the National Association of Secretaries of State, which represents the chief election officials from around the country; and Vote411.org, sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
You can check to make sure you’re registered at both sites, which also have information on polling places as well as voter ID requirements by state. Most states also have election hotlines (see chart with this story) for voters to call if they do not have Internet access.
You’ll also find additional information about provisional ballots, voter IDs and first-time voters below.
First things first
But making sure you’re registered and identifying your polling place are both crucial first steps to making the process go more smoothly Tuesday.
“Research has shown from the past two election cycles that the No. 1 question voters have on Election Day is, ‘Am I registered to vote,’ and the second-most frequent question is, ‘Where do I go to vote?’ ” said Kay Stimson, director of communications and special projects for the National Association of Secretaries of State. “So, those are two very powerful things voters can find out in advance.”
Sean Greene, project manager for research for the Pew Center on the States’ electionline.org, agrees.
“Check with a phone call, in person or online that you’re actually registered to vote,” he said. “That’s the most important thing. And when you’re doing that, check what sort of ID you need to bring, and where you’re supposed to vote. Knowing all of that ahead of time, obviously, is the best way.”
Canivote.org “is the only Web portal that’s set up by election officials linking directly to election officials that’s out there,” said Stimson. “It allows people to check their registration, find their polling place, learn about ID requirements and perhaps most importantly, look up a contact for a local election office.”
LWV help by phone
The League of Women Voters, with 850 chapters around the country, also will have volunteers staffing the phones in the next few days to answer voter questions about Election Day. Check your local phone book for the group’s number.
“Certainly on the day before the election and the day of the election, callers will find a real person answering the telephone,” said Mary Wilson, national president of the League of Women Voters.
“If you call and leave a message, our local leagues are great at getting back to people with the information they need.”
Slideshow: Early voting Two other tips to making voter faster and more pleasant: Study and mark a sample ballot ahead of time. (If your city, county or state doesn’t send you one, you may be able to find one online at your state’s election site.) And, bring a book, book on tape, or digital music player with you to help pass the time as you wait in line to vote, said Wilson.
“This is absolutely wonderful that we’ll have this huge turnout,” she said. “Let’s take advantage of it, let’s enjoy it, and be as patient as we possibly can with the process because election officials are doing the very best that they can to accommodate an unusually large turnout.”
IDs required in half of states
Regarding IDs, half of the states in the country now require voters to show some form of identification, whether photo or non-photo, according to electionline.org. So, it might be best to play it safe rather than sorry and come prepared.
Jennie Bowser, of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said if you don’t have Internet access, “and you just don’t know how to go about tracking down what the specific requirements in your state are, your best bet is to take with you to the polls a government-issued photo ID.”
It can be “a driver’s license, a state ID card, a passport, a military ID — something like that issued by the state or federal government,” she said. “You may get there and find you don’t need it. But if you’ve got it and you do need it, you won’t end up voting a provisional ballot.”
Put simply, a regular ballot is what you want to cast. A provisional ballot is the next best thing, but not ideal because of the complications it brings with it.
Voters who show up at the wrong precinct, for example, or without the correct identification, or whose names don’t appear in the poll books, may wind up being told they cannot cast a regular ballot, but that they can vote a provisional ballot.
A provisional ballot is not actually counted until election officials determine that the voter who cast it is eligible to vote.
That’s a process that can take days, sometimes longer. Provisional voting also is handled differently in each state, and in some cases, differently by counties within the same state. That means there is no guarantee a provisional ballot will wind up being counted.
“In some states, if you cast a ballot in the wrong precinct, it will not be counted,” said Greene. “While in other states, if you cast the ballot in the wrong precinct, but say you’re in the right county, they will count your vote for the races higher up on the ballot, such as president and statewide races, that you’d be eligible to vote for anywhere throughout the state.
“I think most election officials see provisional ballots as a last resort ballot, a good backup to have, but not something you want to overly rely on because of the voter eligibility issues that arise afterward,” he said.
Don't hestiate to ask questions
Wilson, of the League of Women Voters, said voters who are told at the polls they will need to vote a provisional ballot should ask for an explanation of why.
“Because, if that reason is that the voter is at the wrong precinct, the voter needs to get themselves to the right precinct, or they run a high probability that their provisional ballot won’t count,” she said.
If a voter is at the correct polling place, but registration information can’t be found, the voter should insist upon getting a provisional ballot, rather than walking away without voting, Wilson said.
“Voters need to take that initiative because poll workers are busy on Election Day, and giving out a provisional ballot is a little bit of extra work for them, and they might not necessarily suggest that,” she said.
She also recommends voters ask to speak with the chief election official at the polling precinct if there are questions.
“If they say, “Let me talk to the chief person at this precinct,’ they’ll get the right person,” she said. “And that person does have additional training above and beyond what the typical poll worker has. Very often, speaking with that person can resolve the issue.”
Three states — Florida, Indiana and Georgia — require photo identification by all voters, something that’s new for Indiana and Georgia voters in a presidential election.
And, the number of states requiring all voters to show some form of ID — be it photo ID or non-photo — has gone from 11 to 25 since the federal Help America Vote Act was passed in 2002, according to electionline.org.
In Georgia, you will have to show one of the following kinds of photo IDs: a state driver’s license (even if it’s expired); a state or federal government-issued photo ID; a valid U.S. passport; an employee ID card with your photograph that has been issued by any branch of the state or federal government; a valid U.S. military ID card; a valid tribal ID card.
In Indiana, acceptable identification includes a driver’s license, passport, military ID or photo ID from the state’s Department of Driver Services. The “criteria” for acceptable IDs are that the name on the photo ID you use has to match the voter registration record; the ID itself needs to have an expiration date that is after Nov. 4; and the ID has to be issued by either the state or federal government.
In Florida, a photo ID that also shows your signature is required, and is checked at the polls “solely to confirm the voter’s identity,” and “not to verify the voter’s ID number or address,” according to the Florida Department of State. “The photograph on the ID is compared to the person standing before the poll worker, and the signature on the ID is compared to the signature on record.”
Four states — Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan and South Dakota — ask voters for a photo ID. If they don’t have one with them, they can sign an affidavit “attesting to their identity and cast a regular ballot,” according to electionline.org.
Eighteen states require voter ID including photo and non-photo IDs. Those states are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Colorado, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.
First-time voters in Kansas and Pennsylvania will need to have “some form of photo or non-photo ID” with them when they go to the polls, said Greene, of electionline.org.
All first-time voters who registered to vote by mail, rather than in person, will need to make sure they have photo ID with them at the polls, no matter which state they live in, said Stimson of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
“And the list of IDs that are permissible under federal law is very long, and includes things like a utility bill or a paycheck, because it shows your name and address. But a government-issued photo ID should also suffice,” she said.
Registering on Election Day
It may seem strange, but there are eight states that allow Election Day-registration. They are: Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
The state of North Dakota does not require registration to vote. But if you try to show up there and cast a ballot, you’ll need to have ID and proof showing you’re a legal state resident and have lived in the voting precinct for 30 days before the election, according to the Secretary of State’s office there.
And, “for the purposes of voting, a person may have only one residence, shown by an actual fixed permanent dwelling, or any other abode.”
One state will not have any lines to deal with, or ID issues at the polls. That’s Oregon, where for the third time, voters are casting their presidential ballots by mail.
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