Here’s a scary idea: Even if you have the legal right to vote and have done everything to prepare yourself for casting a ballot this year, you could still be intimidated at the polls.
But here’s the key thing to know: Under federal law, you should always be able to cast what’s known as a provisional ballot, even if your registration status is not clear.
That’s right. The federal government requires that a person whose registration is challenged be able to cast a ballot that can be counted once the voter’s eligibility is established.
That doesn’t mean voting will be easy. If you’re voting at the polls early or on Election Day, you still might have to brave long lines, pass by campaign activists or face challenges from credentialed poll watchers.
President Donald Trump has encouraged his supporters to monitor polling places on his behalf as he spreads unfounded conspiracy theories about voter fraud, amplifying concerns that legitimate voters will be challenged on their way into polling places — even though most states have strict rules about who can serve as a poll watcher and how many there can be.
In some places, it is getting harder to vote
In recent years, many US states have implemented laws that impose new restrictions on voting, which critics say disproportionately affect minority voters.
The stricter laws stem from a 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required the approval of the Justice Department before states made any changes to their voting laws.
At least 23 states have placed restrictions on voting by closing polling places, cutting early voting, purging allegedly ineligible voters from electoral rolls and imposing stricter voter ID laws, according to a 2018 report by the federal Commission on Civil Rights.
And in 2020, 35 states will request or require photo ID from voters, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
With early voting already underway, it can be a tricky situation for thousands who are just looking to legally exercise their civic right as American citizens.
But no matter what unexpected issues you encounter at your polling place, there are ways to make sure your vote gets in safely. Here are some tips.
Know your state’s registration deadline
First, it’s time to confirm the basics: Your registration status and your polling location.
If you’re not registered, you should check your state’s registration deadline requirement ASAP. Some states allow for Election Day registration.
The important thing is to educate yourself about the rules in your state and for your specific polling place. CNN’s Voter Guide, which has information on every state, is a good place to start.
Update your information
Some states will use signature verification to confirm mail-in or provisional ballots. They’ll look at the signature on a mailed in ballot and compare it to the signature the state has on file.
The verification of these signatures on absentee ballots could turn into a contentious issue in close races.
Check to see if you need an ID, and what kind
Did you know that not all states require an ID to vote? Again, just 35 request or require some form of identification, while the rest use methods like a signature. States have different laws on whether you need your ID with you or what kind of ID it should be, so be sure to look it up.
Even if your state doesn’t require an ID to vote, it’s best to bring one if you have one. Being over-prepared is just another layer of protection against voter suppression.
And if you don’t have a driver’s license, there’s usually another valid form of ID — passport or other government-issued ID — or a utility bill.
Remember that, most likely, you are legally allowed to cast a ballot
What if you are told your registration didn’t go through, or you don’t have the required documents? Even if your registration is pending or your voter application has been wrongly purged, you are still allowed to vote.
According to the ACLU, if your qualifications are challenged, some states will have you sign a sworn statement that you satisfy your state’s requirements and allow you to cast a regular ballot.
If you did forget your ID at home or have been removed from the registration system and none of the other options are available, you can cast a provisional ballot — a right all voters are entitled to by federal law.
However, you’re going to need to be your biggest advocate when it comes to provisional ballots: These ballots are typically kept separately from all other ballots, so make sure to follow up with your local elected officials to confirm they have looked into your qualifications and have counted the vote. Often, you might have to prove your identity in the days following Election Day to have that provisional ballot counted.
When all else fails, insist
Speaking of being your biggest advocate, this is why doing your homework and arming yourself with legal knowledge is absolutely necessary. If you feel you are being illegally prevented from voting, you need to insist.
It could be a misunderstanding. Remember, poll workers may not be as as familiar with state and federal law and try to deny you your right to vote if your name is not in the system. Ask them to check surrounding registration systems for your name and insist on your right to sign an affidavit or cast a provisional ballot.
If you’re aggressively being questioned about your right to cast a vote, you can calmly and clearly state you are exercising your legal right to vote. Report the behavior to other poll workers and peacefully communicate your intent. You should also report such incidents to election hotlines or local and state officials as voter intimidation.
You have a few options, including calling a state or local election hotline to report any problems you’re having with the voting process.
One more thing: you don’t have to go alone
Here’s something else you may not know: Any residents who can’t see well, have a disability, or have trouble reading or writing or understanding English can bring someone with them to the polls. This can be a friend or relative, but can’t be a boss or labor union representative.
Here’s the bottom line: If you know your rights, know the law, do your homework and stand your ground, no one will be able to take away your vote.