Election 2008

How to Make Your Vote as Easy as Possible: An Online Guide

How to vote early, find your polling place, check your registration, know what ID to bring and more. <i>With new updated info.</i>
Voting season is upon us, and thanks to the incredible efforts of progressive organizations and inspired activists, election 2008 has some dazzling online innovations to make voting as simple as possible -- from comprehensive one-stop shop resources like the League of Women Voters' Vote411.org site, to the Moveon.org- and Catalist.us-sponsored VotePoke.org tool that helps you check your registration status, to the Twitter Vote Report, an easy way for voters to use their cell phones to report on problems that they face, be they long lines, voter ID issues or problems with student voting.

Here is a list of resources and tips for how to use the best online tools to make voting as simple as possible and how you can protect your vote:

1. Early voting

For early voting, which is an option in 31 states, people must go to their county offices or an early voting center. EarlyVoting.net tells you whether your state allows early voting and if there are restrictions. Some states don't allow it unless you are ill, can't leave work, etc. The bottom of the chart has specifics for each state. GoVote.org helps find your polling place location for both early voting and Election Day voting, based on your ZIP code and address.

You should call your county's election office to find out the hours for early voting and whether your location will be open this weekend. Some states are expanding hours. This link on the OverseasVoteFoundation site is a national directory of county election offices, phone numbers and other contact information. Its site is absolutely the best for overseas voting questions.

2. Find out where your polling place is.

Early voting is generally at a county office building. For Election Day, you have to go to polling places identified by precinct number. There are a lot of online tools to find polling place locations, but some have other useful features. The League of Women Voters' Vote411.org site has a well-designed poll locator tool. When you get to the page where you enter the street address, you can also download a sample ballot as a PDF file and check your voter registration status. Also, the 866-MY-VOTE1 hot line lets people enter their home phone number for the address where they are registered and it spits out the poll location.

Google Maps also has a tool in conjunction with the League of Women Voters that retrieves a map of your polling place, prints directions, and has contact information for local election officials. GoVote has polling place information that is especially useful for student voters and can be accessed by text messaging. If you use this tool and no match comes up, you will be referred to the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline manned by lawyers.

3. Check your registration status.

Every state except North Dakota requires that voters register before voting. A handful of states (Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Wyoming) will let people register on Election Day or during early voting. Connecticut allows people to register on Election Day but only to vote for president.

For the rest of us, registration for the 2008 presidential campaign is mostly closed. One issue this year that will affect some voters is whether their voter registration records are current. Some may be missing for a variety of reasons. Most people won't experience this, but it's smart to check if your registration is in the system. At the same time, you can see what ID you'll need.

Not all states have online voter registration verification tools. But VotePoke.org has a tool (sponsored by MoveOn.org and Catalist.us) to check registration status. If it's inconclusive, try state-specific tools on LongDistanceVoter.org, or as a last resort, call your county election official to verify your registration.

People who show up to vote but whose names are not on voter lists will be given a provisional ballot, which will have to be verified after Election Day to count. The rules for counting these ballots vary from state to state. In some cases, voters might have to show up at the county election office within a few days with ID or documents to verify their registration information.

4. Make sure you bring the right ID to vote.

Every state has different voter ID laws. CanIVote.org, a site run by the National Association of Secretaries of State, has an easy online search tool for voter ID and other voting information. The Fair Elections Legal Network also has a great resource page with specifics for battleground states (Ohio, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, Georgia and Pennsylvania). New voters, take note: You often have to present a photo ID or more specific form of ID. You can always call the county election office if there is a question.

Virtually all of the threatened partisan challenges to new voters will be based on a probably false accusation that a voter's address (or legal residence) is not the same as it is on their voter registration form. If you check your registration status, and bring the right ID, no one can stop you from voting.

5. Find out what kind of voting machines are in your county.

Different states are using different voting systems, some for the first time. Find out what kinds of machines are being used in your state and county at Verifiedvoting.org. They can vary from county to county. The site's "verifier" tool also has contact information for county election officials -- names and numbers -- below the county voting machine information.

6. Find out what problems exist in your state.

There are many ways to find out what is happening in your state or county with voting, both before Election Day and on Election Day.

The election protection wiki site has an interactive map with the latest problems in your state. The VotersUnite.org Web site also has the latest election news by state where you can see if there are issues that might affect you, and it has a voting problems database that is searchable.

7. Call a lawyer if you experience problems while voting.

Voters should first ask poll workers for help if they experience a problem voting. If you make a mistake on a paper ballot, ask for anther ballot. If an electronic machine does not work, ask to use another machine or for a backup paper ballot. At most polling places there will a representative from the major political parties. Ask who they are if your problem isn't being solved.

In the meantime, there are several state-of-the-art hot lines that will help any voter. The biggest is 1-866-OUR-VOTE (administered by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law) and 1-888-Ve-Y-Vota (administered by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund). These hot lines have legal staff that will answer questions in real time and give advice, regardless of political affiliation. They have 10,000 volunteer lawyers who will answer questions, log problems and take legal action if necessary. These election protection calls and problems are mapped at ourvotelive.org.

Another hot line that records people's complaints and then forwards the messages to local election offices and civil rights lawyers is 866-MY-VOTE-1. This service is promoted by The Tom Joyner Morning show, on AM radio in 115 media markets with mostly African-American audience. Its toll-free number provides polling location information, registers and audio-archives voter complaints, and connects voters with election officials in an automated environment.

Remember when calling a hot line to leave your name and contact information. Voting rights attorneys can't follow up if they don't have that information.

8. Help document voting problems for voting rights attorneys and the media.

Unlike in 2004, there are now many groups actively working to document and publicize voting problems. This is important for many reasons. First, problems have to be reported to the local county election offices, as well as to civil rights lawyers and political campaigns, if these voter advocates are to go to court to try to get a judge to solve a problem. Second, the mainstream media often does not want to cover voting problems, but they will not be able to ignore online incident reports, videos and other documentary evidence. Finally, unless this record is created during a presidential election, Congress will not take these issues seriously and be forced to address problems in the way we vote.

Calling the voter hot lines is a very good first step -- to help you vote -- but there is more to do.

VideoTheVote.org is a national initiative to protect voting rights by monitoring the electoral process. Citizen journalists -- ordinary folks like you and me -- are organized to document election problems as they occur. Then the footage is distributed to the mainstream media and online to make sure the full story of Election Day gets told. VideoTheVote.org also will collect and distribute cellphone photos, but you have to sign up and have a compatible phone.

Twitter Vote Report is another initiative, under which voters can use their cell phones to report on problems that they face -- long lines, voter ID issues, problems with student voting or anything else. These reports will be sent to the 866-OURVOTE reporting network feeding legal action and will be used to produce reports via Google maps that show hot spots and other trends.

VoterStory.org has launched a nonpartisan voter complaint system as a networking resource for people who face difficulty casting a ballot and for groups monitoring the polls on Election Day, Nov. 4. By filling out a form on the VoterStory Web widget, voters will not only have their stories heard; they will also have their complaints promptly addressed by qualified organizations in their communities through the 866-MY-VOTE1 hot line.

Another excellent source of information can be found at Mother Jones. The "Steal This Election" Citizen Investigation Map is an easy and interactive way to keep up to date on, and report any, voting problems that are occurring in your area. As they direct on the website "simply click on your state to see and record observations of the voting process in your hometown this election season."

Sign up with Video The Vote, so you can get alerts about voter protection in your community: //videothevote.org/
This project is organized by The UpTake, a video-based journalism website, empowers everyday citizens to get involved in media and politics, both through viewing and creating online content, as well as by becoming citizen journalists.
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and author of Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting (AlterNet Books, 2008).
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