updated 9/22/2004 4:07:18 PM ET 2004-09-22T20:07:18

Why do voters need to be registered?
The requirement that voters register ahead of elections is not universal, but it is very nearly so. Only North Dakota among the 50 states holds its elections without requiring registration (in North Dakota, voters need only show a driver's license or other form of ID proving state residency). At various times in their histories, however, the other 49 states found it necessary to require registration to discourage voter fraud. While fraud is still possible, maintaining a registration list provides election officials with an important measure of how many total votes are possible, and it makes it possible to trace those who cast multiple votes. The registration requirement has been attacked by some activists as an impediment to voting, particularly among communities who might shy away from contact with government entities (new immigrant groups, minorities in some areas), or have trouble getting out (the elderly or rural voters). Recent reforms have made registration easier via mail and at places like state motor vehicle bureaus.

How do I get registered?
A registration application can be obtained from the local election officials in your county, or through registration outreach programs sponsored by groups such as the League of Women Voters. You can also register to vote when applying for services at state motor vehicles bureau or drivers' licensing offices, state offices providing public assistance, state offices providing state-funded programs for the disabled, and at armed forces recruitment offices. In addition to these locations, many states offer registration opportunities at public libraries, post offices, unemployment offices, public high schools and universities. MSNBC.com offers an online tool which allows you to complete and print an official voter registration form. You can find it in our special Making Your Vote Count section.

If I registered for the last election, do I need to do it again?
Only if:

  • You move or change your mailing address.
  • You change your name.
  • You wish to change your party affiliation.

Will I have to provide identification to register?
Rules vary by state, but generally identification is requested only if you are a new registrant in the county in which you are now registering. Identification is not normally required for updates within the same county, or for any new registrations delivered in person. Usually, a copy of your current, valid photo identification (such as a driver's license), or a copy of a paycheck stub, utility bill, bank statement or other government document showing your name and address would suffice. Passports always are the best source.

How do I know if I’m properly registered?
Call your local or state board of elections office. Contact information for state offices is located in the state-by-state “Registration Deadlines” box on this page. Click your state for details.

What is the deadline for registering for the November presidential election?
Deadlines vary from state to state, and often depending on whether you plan to vote in person or by absentee ballot. Contact information for state offices is located in the state-by-state “Registration Deadlines” box on this page. Click your state for details.

Where is my polling place?
The locations of polling places in each community are determined by state and local election officials. State election divisions typically will mail you a card prior to Election Day with the location of your polling place. Many state election division Web sites provide online tools to find your polling place, and you can also contact your local or state election division by phone, mail, fax or e-mail in most cases.

If I’m not registered by Election Day (Nov. 2), can I still vote?
If you show up at your polling place on Election Day and are told you aren’t registered, but believe you are registered and have been wrongly excluded the from election rolls, you can request a “provisional ballot.” The Help America Vote Act of 2002, enacted by Congress in the aftermath of the 2000 vote-counting problems in Florida, requires that all states provide provisional ballots to any voter who asks for one. There is some state-to-state variation in rules, but California’s are typical. There, a voter would be given a ballot, which is then placed in a special envelope that the voter must sign, much like an absentee envelope. During the official canvass (the official count), the elections official checks the voter registration file to verify the voter's eligibility to cast the ballot. Once verified, the ballot is added to the official count. If, however, the voter is not eligible to cast a ballot (e.g. the voter is not currently registered to vote in that county), then the ballot is not counted.

Six states (Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Wyoming) allow Election Day registration at polling places. While rules vary, in most cases you simply show up at the appropriate polling place in your neighborhood with proper identification and election officials will register you on the spot. You can then cast your vote. Check with your state election officials for details in your state.

What do I do if I see vote tampering or discrimination at a polling place?
Call the state board of elections, state prosecutors’ or attorney general’s office, or the U.S. Department of Justice. The Justice Department provides hotlines for voters to report any suspected discrimination at polling sites (202) 253-3931 or questions about vote tampering or ballot box stuffing (202) 514-1412.

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Is there a way for me to vote if I’m not in my home state or if I’m overseas?
Depending on the state, there are two ways to vote if you will be away from home on Election Day. “Early voting” is generally done in person at county and state election offices, and in states which offer it anyone can vote early regardless of whether they will be away from home on Election Day. “Absentee ballots” are typically restricted to those who cannot vote in person at their polling place for some reason. They are often mailed to voters and then mailed back to election officials, though most states also allow absentee ballots to be delivered in person. Deadlines for absentee and early voting, and contact information for state offices are in the state-by-state “Registration Deadlines” box on this page. Click your state for details.

If I declare myself as an independent instead of a Republican or Democrat, does that prevent me from taking part in some elections?
This varies greatly from state-to-state. In some, for instance, being registered as an independent prevents you from voting in party primary elections. Check with your state election officials. Contact information for state offices is in the state-by-state “Registration Deadlines” box on this page. Click your state for details.

Why are federal elections always held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November?
According to the Federal Election Commission Web site:

“The Tuesday after the first Monday in November was initially established in 1845 for the appointment of presidential electors in every fourth year.  In 1875, Congress established this date for electing representatives in every even numbered year. Then, in 1914, Congress established this date as the time for electing U.S. Senators.

“Why early November? For much of our history, America was a predominantly agrarian society. Law makers therefore took into account that November was perhaps the most convenient month for farmers and rural workers to be able to travel to the polls. The fall harvest was over, (remember that spring was planting time and summer was taken up with working the fields and tending the crops) but in the majority of the nation the weather was still mild enough to permit travel over unimproved roads.

“Why Tuesday? Since most residents of rural America had to travel a significant distance to the county seat in order to vote, Monday was not considered reasonable since many people would need to begin travel on Sunday. This would, of course, have conflicted with Church services and Sunday worship.

“Why the first Tuesday after the first Monday? Lawmakers wanted to prevent Election Day from falling on the first of November for two reasons. First, November 1st is All Saints Day, a Holy Day of Obligation for Roman Catholics. Second, most merchants were in the habit of doing their books from the preceding month on the 1st. Apparently, Congress was worried that the economic success or failure of the previous month might prove an undue influence on the vote!”

Sources: State election division Web sites, Federal Election Commission, California Board of Elections, Library of Congress.

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