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Voting in America Is NUTS. Here’s How to Plan Ahead.

[Editor's note: during the last two years, the voting process has changed in many areas in the United States. Today's guest post by reporters at ProPublica explains the changes, and provides advice for voters. It is reprinted with permission.]

By Cynthia Gordy Giwa, ProPublica

Hi, welcome back! Since last time, you’ve learned how online political advertising gets targeted to you, and you had a peek at ads aimed at other people (or ads that campaigns don’t want you to see).

This week, let’s get you ready to vote. There are three key questions you should ask:

  1. Are you registered to vote?
  2. Do you know where your polling place is?
  3. Do you know what you need to bring with you?

The answers aren’t as straightforward as you might think. With 50 states and more than 10,000 voting jurisdictions that run elections different ways, answering even these basic questions can get tricky. Oh, and since the 2016 election, state legislatures have enacted more than 500 new voting laws. This means almost every state has changed something about its voting process. Our patchwork voting system isn’t just confusing for you, the voter. It also makes it hard to keep track of how well our elections are actually being run.

Welcome to Electionland

(Hey, now — no Electionland slander on my watch! I promise, this’ll be a good time.)

Electionland, a coalition of hundreds of newsrooms around the country, is working to change this. Its reporters monitor problems that can stop voters from casting their ballots, like changed voting locations, flyers with false information, voter purges, broken machines and hacking. Led by ProPublica, Electionland uses data and technology to track problems, in real time, at every stage of the voting process.

We’ll talk more about what those problems look like and what they might mean for your community. In the meantime, let’s make sure you’re set for November.

So, Are You Registered?

You’ve still got time to make this voting thing official! If you’re not registered to vote, you can learn more about how to fix that through your state’s elections website.

Even if you’re pretty sure you’ve handled it already, take a moment to get 100 percent certain. On the morning of New York’s primary elections in September, we saw a whole frenzy of tweets like this...

And this...

As WNYC’s Gothamist, an Electionland partner, reported, an untold number of voters arrived at their polling sites only to find their names mysteriously missing from the rolls, or their registration transferred to new districts. Election officials regularly clean up their voter rolls to get rid of inactive voters who have died or moved and forgotten to update their information. But mistakes are often made, and active voters can get swept off the rolls too.

Vote.org has a handy tool that lets you verify your voter registration in seconds.

Absentee Voting

If you’re an out-of-state college student, you can register to vote either in your home state or where you attend college. If you decide to register in your home state, you’ll need to request an absentee ballot, which you receive by mail before the election.

Also called mail-in voting, absentee voting trips up a lot of students. In a recent study, 23 percent of students cited not getting an absentee ballot in time as their reason for not voting. Don’t let this be you!

Absentee voting isn’t just for college students, though. You may also need mail-in voting if you:

  • are out of your county on Election Day
  • are sick or have a physical disability that makes it hard to get to the polls
  • are active duty in the U.S. military
  • work a required shift that coincides with polling hours

The rules for absentee ballots, and who is allowed to use them, vary based on where you live. (That patchwork voting system strikes again!)

  • 20 states require you to give them a good reason for voting absentee
  • 27 states and the District of Columbia let you do it without giving an excuse.
  • And, fun fact: in Colorado, Oregon and Washington, everyone votes by mail.

If you want to request an absentee ballot, you should request it early — election offices are slammed in the weeks before Election Day. Your secretary of state’s website has more details about the local rules and deadlines.

There are also 37 states that offer some kind of early voting. Again, your secretary of state’s website has more details about the local rules and deadlines.

Where to Go on Election Day…

Next, you should look up your polling place. Even if you’ve voted recently, polling locations change, so just showing up wherever you voted the last time might not work out. Double check on the official site of your secretary of state.

When you actually hit the polls, you might face long lines — sometimes as a sign of problems at your location, sometimes as a sign of voter enthusiasm. In Maricopa County, Arizona, where some voters waited in lines up to two hours during this year’s primaries, the Arizona Republic (an Electionland partner) found that it was a little of both. Be prepared!

… And What to Bring

If you’re a first-time voter, you are required to show identification at the polls. And in some states, all voters have to present ID. But what you’ll need to bring varies by state. Sometimes drastically.

Strict Photo ID

Some states require voters to show government-issued photo identification, like a driver’s license or U.S. passport.

Strict Non-Photo ID

In some states, non-photo ID with your name and address, such as a utility bill or bank statement, is required.

Non-Strict Voter ID

Then there are the states that request either of these forms of ID, but it’s not required for you to vote.

Under this category, you can still vote through alternative options like signing an identity affidavit, having election officials vouch for your identity or voting on a provisional ballot that is double-checked by your local election officials. (But, like all things on Nov. 6, options come down to the state.)

No Document Required to Vote

Finally, in some states, you don’t have to show any ID at all! Unless you’re a first-time voter. Then you do. 🙃

You can learn more about the nuances of your state’s special brand of voter ID requirements at your secretary of state’s site.

To Recap:

Homework and Additional Reading

Don’t forget, Electionland is monitoring the voting experience nationwide, and we’re inviting you to help. If you had problems completing any of the steps in this guide, we want to hear about it.

From now through Election Day, you can tell us about voting problems in your area. In 2016, nearly 4,000 voters reported problems they experienced or saw to Electionland, from names incorrectly missing from the voter rolls to shady information shared online. We’re listening!

Check out a few of Electionland’s latest investigations:

We’re getting off to a great start. Next week’s topic: what your current representatives actually stand for. I can’t wait to share more with you then!

Cynthia Gordy Giwa Proud ProPublican

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ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

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