So, before you vote, read this. It's worth it to prepare in case you run into any problems at your polling place.
Heading Off Election Day Mishaps
Most Pitfalls Have a Remedy, if Voters Are Prepared; Bringing Along Proper ID
Tomorrow is Election Day: The campaign is over, and it is time to cast your ballot at last. What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty. A poll worker may say you aren't registered. Your voting machine could malfunction. Your meddling neighbor could say you aren't eligible to vote. Or maybe you are offered a provisional ballot -- and what is the difference between regular ballots, provisional ballots and emergency ballots, anyway?
There is a remedy for most of these problems, and a bit of advance preparation should ensure that they never come up. Here is a voter's guide on what could go wrong at the polls and what to do about it:
- You aren't on the voter rolls. This could happen for several reasons, and the remedies are different for each.
The huge number of new voters has caused registration backlogs in some states, and the voter rolls may not show your name if you registered just before the deadline. That "has the potential to be a significant problem," says Jonah Goldman of the nonpartisan Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
If that happens, you may have to file a provisional ballot. Elections judges open provisional ballots after Election Day and, on a case-by-case basis, decide which should be counted. Your voter-registration form will have been dated and time-stamped and will provide proof that you are eligible to vote.
Be sure you are in the right precinct and polling place. State laws differ -- in some states, a provisional ballot cast in the wrong precinct will be counted; in others, it won't. The Web site www.maps.google.com/vote can tell you where your voting location is and how to get there.
You also might not be on the voter rolls if you haven't voted in several elections and have been moved to the inactive list. Make sure poll workers have checked all of their voter lists for your name. Inactive voters are entitled to cast regular ballots, which are counted on the night of the election and aren't subject to the additional scrutiny of provisional ballots.
Elections offices also regularly purge their rolls to remove voters who have died, moved or been convicted of felonies. Federal law outlines when and how they can do that, however, and Colorado and Michigan recently were ordered by federal judges to reinstate voters who were unlawfully purged. If your name was removed from the rolls, you might have to file a provisional ballot.
- You don't have an ID. Only Georgia and Indiana require an identification with a current photo. Other states require some form of identification. And still others require an ID only of first-time voters who registered by mail. A map at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice Web site (www.brennancenter.org/content/section/category/voter_id) shows the ID requirements for each state.
Some states allow voters who don't have the required ID documents to file provisional ballots. Don't take a provisional ballot if you don't have to: State laws differ on how and when provisional ballots are counted, and there is a chance that yours will be excluded.
If poll workers ask for an ID even if one isn't required, you can appeal to the chief judge at your polling place or call the nonpartisan watchdog group Election Protection for guidance. Their number is 1-866-OUR-VOTE. Election Protection will operate 25 call centers, staffed by some 10,000 lawyers and other volunteers, and is expecting 100,000 calls on Election Day.
Probably the best solution to an ID problem, though, is to show your driver's license, whether it is legally required or not. "There's not a lot of time on Election Day to stand on principle," says Mr. Goldman.
- There are voting-equipment problems. There are different remedies for different problems.
Touch-screen voting machines may lose power or otherwise stop working. In that case, polling places will have emergency paper ballots on hand. An emergency ballot, unlike a provisional ballot, is counted on the night of the election and doesn't undergo a review by election judges. Make sure your emergency ballot isn't mingled with provisional ballots, or it might not get a timely count.
Votes may "flip" on an electronic voting system, showing that you cast your vote for Barack Obama, for example, even though you are sure you voted for John McCain. Flipping usually is caused by a calibration problem, says the Brennan Center -- that is, the voting machine isn't matching up the candidate's name on the screen with his name on an internal program.
Summon a poll worker to fix the error, make sure your vote is registered properly on the summary page of the electronic ballot and then call Election Protection, which is tracking machine problems.
Many states will keep their registration lists on electronic poll books this year. In some trial tests and primaries, those have crashed or been too slow to be of any use. If that happens, there is no way poll workers can verify your registration data, and you will have to file a provisional ballot.
- Your eligibility is challenged. The Republican Party has said it might challenge voters registered by activist groups like Acorn, whose field workers it has accused of signing up fictitious people, felons and others ineligible to vote. State laws vary widely about who can make challenges and under what conditions. In Ohio, only poll workers can challenge a voter; in Florida, any voter can challenge any other.
Be prepared for a challenge by bringing along proof of your age, identity and address. If those are in order and you are in the correct precinct, you must be offered a regular ballot. If they aren't, you may have to vote by provisional ballot.
- The lines are long. Tough luck.
A few jurisdictions require election workers to offer emergency ballots if lines are more than 45 minutes long. Everyone else can probably expect a long wait.
Voting hours vary by state, so check the Web site of your local elections board. Everyone in line at closing time will be allowed to vote, no matter how late the polls must stay open.