Attention Voters: Here's What You Have to Do to Make Sure You Get to Vote
Ignore the partisan attacks on new voters and voter registration groups. Call your county election office to ensure your registration information is correct. Vote early to avoid Election Day delays, or use an absentee ballot if you know how to fill one out.
For those voting on Election Day, know where your polling place is located, what ID to bring (especially new voters) and expect lines. Call an election protection hotline if there is trouble. But be confident that you will vote if you have followed your state's registration laws.
These are the messages from voting rights advocates as the partisan attacks on 2008's newest voters and voter drives continue with two weeks to go before Election Day.
"People should not be worried," said Tova Wang, vice president for research at Common Cause, "but they should educate themselves. For the overwhelming majority of people, there will be no problem ... But people should not let any tactic that is intended to discourage them from voting stop them."
"I would verify my registration," said Gerry Hebert, executive director of Washington's Campaign Legal Center and a former Voting Section chief at the Justice Department. "I would vote earlyÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ I would consider absentee voting. The only caution against that (means of voting) is if you make a mistake, you might not get to correct it."
With two weeks to go before the 2008 presidential election, two seemingly contradictory trends are at play across the national political landscape -- possibly confusing voters.
On one hand, Republicans -- from their presidential candidate, to state parties and their lawyers, to local McCain supporters in law enforcement posts -- have been trying to alarm and discourage voters by saying that hundreds of thousands of 2008's newest voters may not be legally registered.
On the other hand, record numbers of Americans have been voting in the handful of states where pre-Election Day, or early voting is allowed and has begun. So far, most have not faced partisan challenges or bureaucratic barriers hindering their right to vote. Moreover, early voting numbers suggest 2008 will be the highest turnout election in decades.
"This is an incredibly exciting election year," said Common Cause's Wang. "Voters should just educate themselves about the process."
What Should Voters Do?
Voters need to be sure they are properly registered. They can do this by calling their county election office and verifying their voter registration information is in their county database and is current.
Anyone who registered with the help of a voter drive this year should check to see that their form has been processed, as those applications have to be entered by local officials. If there are data-entry errors, many states still allow voters to fix those, so their right to vote is not jeopardized. In some locales, officials are still processing voter registration applications turned in weeks ago.
While on the phone, voters should ask where their polling place is located and what form of ID is required. First-time voters must show more specific forms ID when checking in to vote.
Voters can also ask about early voting options. There generally are two choices, although every state has its own laws. The first is called in-person early voting, where a voter will go to a county office or designated site and fill out a ballot. If there are any questions or mistakes made when voting, election officials can correct those. The second option is to get an absentee ballot, which is taken home and mailed. The downside of voting absentee is any mistakes in filling it out the ballot cannot always be corrected. In every election, a number of absentee ballots are disqualified for errors that could otherwise be fixed.
Here are charts that describe each state's early voting options and absentee ballot options. (This is voting by mail with an absentee ballot, which is not the same as in-person absentee voting, where voters fill-out and submit an absentee ballot at a county office before Election Day.
One of the big unanswered questions about the 2008 election is will the GOP try to contest the credentials of new voters as they show up at polling places.
Voter challenges are a deliberate tactic to discourage voting. In most cases, these involve a party representative challenging an individual's registration as that voter checks in at their polling place. A typical partisan challenger would claim that voter lives at a different address than what is in their voter registration record. The challenged voter then must produce an ID or a utility bill proving otherwise to vote. This tactic could not only delay that person from voting, but would also slow down others in line. The goal of voter challenges is both to victimize new voters and to prompt others to leave without voting.
The solution to voter challenges is to call your local election office now to ensure that your registration is current. If your information is correct, you cannot be successfully challenged and you will vote. If a problem arises while voting, the challenged voter should call the nation's largest election protection hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE, where they will reach an election lawyer or law specialist to help them solve the problem. That hotline is now being staffed during East Coast business hours.
The prospect of partisan challenges in 2008 has been enhanced by a bureaucratic snafu that is not the fault of most voters. Government databases that are now being used for the first time in some states to verify voter registrations have had numerous "no matches" due to data-entry problems. The GOP is using this problem to suggest that Democrats are illegally padding voter rolls with fabricated voter registrations.
Republicans have said, in lawsuits and public statements, that the only response to these mismatches is to recertify all new voters -- which they know is not going to happen before Election Day. Secondarily, the GOP has argued that these voters should get a provisional ballot, which must be verified after Election Day before it is counted.
Virtually all of the Republican-filed litigation -- notably in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania -- has sought to invalidate voter registrations where a 'no match' has occurred. So far, the GOP has lost every case in court on this issue, including one at the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Democratic National Committee, which is coordinating election protection efforts for the Obama campaign, also said that voters should not be intimidated by GOP voter suppression efforts.
"They should not be scared at all," said Bob Bauer, Obama campaign counsel. "One of the tactics that the Republican Party is going to be using is scare tactics. It's the use of the media to promote on a virtually daily basis these demands for investigations and these completely spurious and manufactured allegations of illegal voting. This has been going on, obviously, for weeks. And our message to voters ... is you need not be concerned."
"We have their backs," Bauer said, speaking of his legal team, "and we will handle what needs to be done here to make sure that 2008 is precisely what we believe it will be, an extraordinarily high turnout election in which voters -- not the Republican Party, not the Department of Justice, not the Supreme Court of the United States as in Bush versus Gore -- but voters decide the outcome of the election."
But this fight is not over. The best defense is for voters to take personal responsibility to ensure that their voter registration information is current. Then, they also should consider voting early to avoid the long lines predicted on Election Day.