Election Day is less than a week away, and early voting sites are crowded. Record turnout is expected Tuesday, and election officials are bracing for possible problems at the polls.
Many voters this year are new and unfamiliar with the balloting process. Even experienced voters could find themselves facing new equipment and rules. A recent CNN poll found that more than 40 percent of people surveyed weren't confident their votes would be accurately cast and counted. Here are answers to some questions about what lies ahead in the next week.
Should voters worry about whether their votes count?
For the most part, no. With all the talk about potential problems at the polls, the overwhelming majority of voters will arrive at their precincts, cast their ballots without incident and have their votes count. But there are always a small number of areas where problems do occur, and depending on where they are and whether or not the presidential race is close, they could be significant.
Voters should be prepared for long lines, though. There are a lot of new voters this year, and although many places will have emergency paper ballots and more voting machines than in the past, it's unlikely to be enough to prevent lines. That's why officials are telling people to make sure they come to their polling place prepared. You should know what, if any, form of ID you need to bring and how to cast your ballot. You can usually find that information on your local election office Web site.
There has been a good amount of talk about contested registration of voters — states purging names from the rolls. Will a lot of voters show up and find out they're not on the list?
Voting rights advocates fear thousands of voters could find themselves in that position, though there have been a number of recent court decisions that could limit the impact. States are required by federal law to clean up their voter registration lists, and to match information submitted by newly registered voters with driver's license or Social Security numbers. The purpose is to reduce the potential for voter fraud.
But the law is unclear about what should be done if the information doesn't match, which has led to a lot of confusion. Some states, such as Colorado and Florida, have refused to sign up thousands of new voters because of inconsistent information until the problems are fixed. But other states, such as Ohio, have decided not to prevent people from voting because their information doesn't match other state records. Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner argues that most of the mismatches are the result of clerical or other innocent mistakes, such as transposed letters or numbers, and that eligible voters shouldn't pay the price.
What option do voters have if they're not on the registration list?
If voters arrive at the polling place and find their names are not on the list or have been flagged in some way, one thing they can do is cast what's called a provisional ballot. That ballot is set aside until after Election Day and counted if the discrepancies are cleared up. But this should be a last resort, because many provisional ballots — about 20 percent in 2006 — aren't counted for one reason or another. And it sometimes requires the voter to come back to the election office with an ID or some other information, which could be a big inconvenience for some people. The best thing — especially if you're a newly registered voter or have recently moved — is to check with your local election office and make sure everything is in order ahead of time. And if there's a problem, you should try to clear it up now or at the polling place, if possible.
Are we going to see any major voting machine problems this year?
There will always be some problems. The question is how big they'll be, where, and what impact they'll have. For the first time this year, a majority of Americans will be voting on paper ballots that will be counted by optical scan machines. Less than a third of voters will be voting on touch-screen voting machines. Those machines have been controversial, and election offices around the country are turning more and more to paper. But even paper has problems. Sometimes voters don't fill out the ballots correctly, and they're rejected by the optical scan machine. This is especially important when it comes to absentee ballots, because you won't have a chance to correct mistakes. As for electronic voting, there are concerns that in some areas, especially in Virginia and Pennsylvania, officials won't have enough emergency paper ballots on hand in case something goes wrong with the machines. That could be a problem, especially if there are big crowds.
What other pitfalls should voters be on the lookout for?
There will be more than a million poll workers manning the precincts on Election Day. They're almost all volunteers, and while most are doing their best to make things go smoothly, they don't always know all the rules and could find themselves especially stressed this year. They have an extraordinary job — trying to get tens of millions of people through the voting process in one day. Voters should be patient, but if they run into problems, there are plenty of groups willing to help, such as voting rights advocates, the political parties and campaigns. They all have hotlines to answer any questions, and lawyers on call.
Another big concern as Election Day gets closer is the misleading information that arises during every election and that is intended either to scare people from the polls or to get them to vote incorrectly. Usually, this involves phone calls or signs telling people to go to the wrong precinct, or that Election Day has been moved to Wednesday, or that you can be arrested if you show up at the polls with an outstanding traffic ticket or warrant.
In fact, a phony flier surfaced in Virginia this past week stating that Republicans are supposed to vote Nov. 4, and Democrats and independents should vote Nov. 5. The flier includes the seal of the state board of elections. But going to the polls Nov. 5 is too late, so if voters have any questions, they should — as always — check with their local elections office.