The Urban Voter’s Survival Guide
Vote suppression, vote manipulation, disenfranchisement, faulty voting machines — these and others are serious problems that threaten to undermine the electoral process in the United States.
While some legislators are attempting to crack down on alleged voter fraud by proposing stringent ID requirements, other lawmakers and grassroots citizen organizations are focusing their attention on the much greater problem of election fraud (intentional efforts to suppress or manipulate the vote) and irregularities (potentially hackable or malfunctioning electronic voting machines), as well as related problems like poorly trained poll workers and insufficient numbers of machines, paper ballots and provisional ballots at polling places.
One of the problems “clean vote” advocates have is convincing the public that the voting process can indeed be dirty. After all, there’s not a lot of distance between talk about election fraud and the latest conspiracy theory. Plus, we want to believe that ours is a pristine process — that every vote counts and that every vote is counted. The sad truth is that many votes go uncounted, and some votes are counted twice or more by electronic machines.
Not surprisingly, the lion’s share of these problems usually exists in poor and urban areas, the glaring exception being Florida’s ballot fiasco back in 2000. And one of the results of these problems is that we feel powerless to correct them, no matter where we live. How can we have faith in electronic machines when the precincts that buy them admit they don’t trust them to accurately count our votes? How can we fight back when we’re turned away at the polls because our photo ID doesn’t include the middle initial that appears on our voter registration, even though the rest of the information on the two documents is consistent? We can quickly get overwhelmed by both the big picture and the exact details.
The reality — and here’s the good news — is that we can each take steps to help ensure that our vote is counted. There’s no guarantee that it will be, but the more attention we pay to some of those details before and on Election Day, the greater the chances that our vote will be registered.
Here’s a checklist of action steps you can take now:
• Double-check now to make sure you are registered to vote. If you discover a problem that you cannot resolve with your local elections board (usually listed in the government pages of the local telephone directory), contact Election Protection at 1-866-OUR-VOTE (687-8683) for help.
• Find out now where your polling place is. It may have changed since the last time you voted.
• Find out exactly what forms of ID your state requires, and make sure everything is in order before Election Day. If you can, go to the appropriate website (usually the county’s board of elections or your state’s secretary of state), research the voter ID law and print the page to take with you on Election Day. Poll workers too often don’t know the law.
• Obtain a sample ballot. Some counties and precincts post sample ballots online. Call your local elections board to have one sent to you if you can’t get it online. As recent elections have shown, ballots can be confusing, and you don’t want to be caught off guard at the polls. Bear in mind, though, that not all jurisdictions provide sample ballots.
Here’s what you can do on Election Day (or earlier, if your state allows early voting):
• Request a paper ballot if one is available. Electronic machines are much too unreliable. Be sure you are not given a provisional ballot; these are used when a person’s voting status is in question, and they often go uncounted. If an electronic machine is your only option, check to see if you can obtain a paper copy of your vote. Some machines allow you to verify your vote on paper before you submit it electronically.
• Be vigilant. If anything strikes you as questionable, bring it to the attention of a poll worker — which may not do any good if the poll workers are part of the problem. (One example: In several New York City precincts in 2006, minority voters were asked for photo ID, which was not a requirement, while no such request was made of white voters.)
• Report any problems, even if they appear to be minor, to your local board of elections as soon as possible; if you have a cell phone, call from the polling place. You can also report it to Election Protection at the number given above and to any of the citizen organizations listed at the end of this article. If it’s serious enough and you haven’t received a satisfactory response from the election board, don’t hesitate to call your local media to notify them of the problem.