There are some people who like to make it harder than necessary for others to vote. Voter-caging practices have already taken hold in this election. It was rumored that the Michigan GOP planned to use a list of foreclosed houses to bar those residents from voting. But with the way these things work, the damage may already have been done if someone who has lost their house is discouraged from showing up.
In Virginia, students who tried to register to vote using their campus addresses were presented with faulty guidelines telling them that they could no longer be claimed as dependents on their parents' tax returns, that they would be dropped from their parents' insurance coverage and that they would lose their scholarships. In New Jersey, voters have been told, wrongly, that they were not registered after a flood of registration forms were submitted to the clerk's office.
Faced with all these shady situations, and so many more, how can voters make sure they are ready to vote?
If you're at least 18 and a U.S. citizen, you're ready to register. And the rush is on. The place to register is with your local county or city elections clerk. Several Web sites including Rock the Vote and Vote411 provide voters with registration forms online that can then be submitted to their local clerks. It can take up to three weeks for you to receive your voter card in the mail.
Since each state has its own voting and registering roadmaps, it is important to pay attention to state guidelines, located on the secretary of state's Web site. Registration deadlines are around the corner; the first ones—Alaska, Rhode Island, South Carolina—occur during the first week of October.
Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming are the only states that allow citizens to register on Election Day.
Already registered? Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia allow citizens to vote early, by mail or in person. Voting early by mail, or absentee voting, is common for college students, older citizens and those who cannot make it to their designated poll on Election Day.
Don't fall into one of those groups? Thirty-one of those states have no-excuse voting, where you can vote early, in person, without a reason. So, to avoid long lines and potential hassles on Election Day, depending on state regulations, early voting might be the best bet.
So, there it is. On Election Day, go to the polls, pick a candidate and look forward to January 20, 2009 with glee or fear.
Well, it might not be that easy. Have you moved since you first registered? Can't find your card? Just want to confirm registration?
If there is any confusion, call up the county/city clerk's office for verification. Every state is required by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 to keep a current and accurate list of registered voters. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 mandated that each state maintain free and accessible databases for its registered voters to confirm registration.
However, these requirements are not always met. Some lists are inaccurate or incomplete. If you encounter a problem, you have to keep pressing.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and its partners recently launched Election Protection, a Web site for voters to gain voter-registration information and to clear up any wrong information. Their hot line, 1-866-OUR-VOTE, provides live help for any voter, in any state. The volunteers on the hot line can look up voter-registration statutes and provide advice on how to navigate the state's election laws.
Before you go to the polls, get educated – know the rules. Twenty-four states require some form of identification. Seven of those, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan and South Dakota, require photo identification.
No ID? Walk into an Alaska or Arkansas precinct and flash a hunting license and you're covered. In other states, Social Security cards, credit cards and utility bills are acceptable, too.
Registration? Got it. Identification? Got it. Hand over the info to the poll worker, and now it's time to choose or lose.
"I'm sorry; your name isn't on the voting rolls."
Pause. Despite reasons of error, including data-entry mistakes or being kicked off the roll, it still may be possible for you to vote.
Call the precinct's election official or the Election Protection hot line to verify you're at the right precinct. If you are indeed in the right place, you have the option to vote on a provisional ballot, which is used when there is any question or problem with a voter's eligibility. After the election, a state official determines whether or not the vote can be counted. The state is required by law to provide a publicly accessible Web site or hot line for voters to see if their vote was counted.
It may not be perfect. But, when it gets down to the last nit-picking voter regulations, it's important to know the rules.
Take the high road. Read up on voting rights and procedures. Let personal responsibility trump the confusing process, so we all can look forward to 2009.
Erin Evans is a writer and copy editor at The Root.
The Root Explainer thanks Jonah Goldman of the National Campaign for Fair Elections and Bryan MacPherson at 1-866-OUR-VOTE.
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