With Election Day right around the corner, it's not too soon to focus on the nitty-gritties of casting your ballot. Here are the ACLU's top 10 tips for avoiding problems when you vote.
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1. Check your voter registration status as soon as possible.
Unless you live in North Dakota, which doesn't have voter registration, you have to register before you can vote. Six states, including Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, allow you to register at the polls on Election Day, but all of the other states require you to register in advance. To avoid any surprises when you go to vote, we recommend that all voters - and particularly new voters - check their registration status well before the election.
Many states allow you to look up your registration status online - usually through the Secretary of State's website. Or you can contact your local election officials to find out if you're registered. And do it soon, so you have time to fix any problems before Election Day.
2. Vote before Election Day if you can.
Don't wait to participate. By voting early or by absentee ballot, you can avoid many of the problems that often come up on Election Day, including long lines, voting machine malfunctions, and running out of ballots.
It used to be that in most states you could only vote early if you had a good excuse - like a business trip that would take you out of town on Election Day. Now, however, an increasing number of states allow any registered voter to vote before Election Day using no-excuse early or absentee voting. Check with your state or local election officials to find out if you can vote before Election Day. You may even be able to vote today.
3. Locate your polling place before Election Day.
If you're going to vote on Election Day, it's a good idea to locate your polling place well before Election Day. It's very important that you vote at the polling place to which you've been assigned - and this might not be the one closest to where you live.For new voters, locating your polling place is a good way to make sure that you'll be on the voter list when you show up at the polls. For other voters, it's important not to assume that you'll be voting where you voted before. Precinct lines and polling places change all the time.
Many states allow you to look up your polling place online through the secretary of state's website. You can also call your local election officials to find out where to vote.
4. Plan ahead if you need special assistance.
If you need help voting because of a physical disability or because you can't read the ballot, you have the right under federal law to bring one or more assistants or interpreters with you to the polls. You can have anyone you choose assist you, including polls a worker, as long as the person isn't a representative of your employer or your labor union.
Your state may also offer other accommodations for elderly or disabled voters, such as curbside voting, and sometimes these require you to sign up in advance.
We recommend that you plan ahead and bring a friend or relative if you know you're going to need extra help.
5. Don't wear political attire to the polls.
While some states do allow voters to wear campaign clothing and buttons in the polling place, most states do not. Free speech issues aside, in order to avoid any confusion or delay on Election Day, we recommend that all voters avoid any potential hassles by choosing not to wear political attire to the polls. If you do wear political attire, be prepared to remove it or cover it up with a jacket or poncho if poll workers ask you to do so.
6. Bring some form of identification if you have it.
Voter ID laws are all over the map. Some states require all voters to show ID before they can get a ballot. Other states require poll workers to request ID but allow you vote even if you don't have it. And other states don't require any ID at all. Even if ID isn't required where you vote, we recommend that all voters bring some form of identification with them to the polls if they have it. The best ID is usually a driver's license or other government-issued photo ID, but many states will also accept non-photo IDs such as a paycheck, government check, or other government document on it with your name and address on it.
Not only can ID help you to get a ballot quickly and efficiently, it can also come in very handy if anyone challenges your eligibility to vote.
7. Vote early in the day.
The best times to vote are usually between 10 a.m. and 12 noon and between 2 and 4 p.m.. The worst times are usually anytime after 5 p.m. Don't wait until the end of the day if you can avoid it. That's when the most problems occur.
8. Follow all instructions.
This tip is a no-brainer, but it's particularly important if you vote by absentee ballot. States often have very specific requirements for how to fill out and return an absentee ballot. In Georgia, where I vote, for example, you have to put the ballot inside a white envelope and then put the white envelope inside a yellow envelope. And then you have to sign the yellow envelope. The good news is that none of these steps are very complicated, and the ballot comes with very clear instructions. But if you mess up, your vote won't count.
Voting isn't rocket science, but it's still a good idea to read and follow all instructions whenever and however you vote.
9. Ask for help if you need it.
Don't be afraid to ask a poll worker for help if ever and whenever you need it. In most states, poll workers are required to help you any time you ask - even after you've entered the voting booth. There's no shame in asking questions, and there are no dumb questions when it comes to something as important as the right to vote.
If you're new to voting, or if you're not familiar with the voting equipment in your polling place, don't hesitate to ask for instructions or a demonstration.
10. Take your time.
Voting isn't a race. In most states, you have at least three to five minutes to cast your ballot, and many states give you even more time than that. Take as much time as you need.