Voting is one of the most important acts of citizenship we perform, but that doesn't mean that it's always a simple process. As Americans flood (or trickle — these are midterm elections, after all) into their polling places on November 4, there are plenty of things that can stand between their best, most patriotic intentions and the ballot box.
"We only think about voting on Election Day, so it's not the easiest thing in the world to do. Relatively small barriers can end up discouraging people from voting," said Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project.
The potential impact of these "small barriers" is exactly why there's so much controversy over the new wave of voter ID laws that have swept the country in recent years. Voting rights advocates say they can make participation harder, especially for the low-income Americans and members of racial minority groups who are less likely to have the identification required. Exacerbating the issue, confused or poorly-trained poll workers have been known to demand even more identification than the laws in their states require.
Beyond ID requirements, other barriers, like the failure to accommodate voters with disabilities, or turning away citizens who are in line when the polls close — to say nothing of things like intimidation by everyday citizens — can make casting a ballot arduous or intimidating.
The good news is that many of these barriers are illegal under federal or state laws, and should not keep you from voting. On November 4, remember your rights: here are six things that aren't supposed to happen when you're casting a ballot.
1. Threats or intimidation
It's illegal under federal law for people to conspire to "injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate" you to get you to vote a particular way for President, Vice President, or — notably for midterm elections — a member of Congress.
"Historically, particularly before the Civil Rights era in the South, there was a lot of intimidation at the polls in predominantly African-American neighborhoods," said Ho. "Obviously, we've come a long way, and the violent tactics have become essentially unheard of, but you still see instances where people are discouraged from voting because of harassment — by people who claim to be poll watchers who are overly aggressive, or with the improper deployment of law enforcement personnel at polling places."
One thing to be on the lookout for: a poll worker who intimidates you by asking you for more information than is legally required to vote. Ho said he's seen allegations of poll workers requiring voters' addresses to match their addresses in the poll book. That goes way beyond the identity verification that any state requires.
Another form of intimidation is the kind that comes from everyday citizens who have made it their mission to fight voter fraud (or, depending on whom you ask, make voting hard and scary for certain people). "We've seen people who work for so-called ballot integrity organizations try to conduct match lists where they take the voter rolls and match them to a list of, say, convicted felons, or a list of non-citizens, often in a really inaccurate way, [in an attempt] to find people who are ineligible and wait for them at the polling place," Ho said.
Yes, that's right. These self-appointed monitors do research, and then approach total strangers and suggest to them, based on information that may or may not be correct, that they can't vote. Federal law protects against this, and citizens can sue people or groups who are trying to use intimidation to keep them from voting.
You also aren't supposed to be hassled about who to vote for when you're trying to vote. State statutes vary when it comes to how far away campaign volunteers must stay from polling places, but every state places some limit on this to protect voters, said Ho. So if you're approached or handed materials when you're at or very near the place where you'll case your ballot, that's cause for concern.
2. Getting shut out of the polling place after waiting in line
There's no specific law addressing how long is too long when it comes to waiting in line to vote, but Ho said waits as short as an hour and as long as 8 hours have been found by courts to violate voters' rights.
Regardless of how long the line, the important thing is that you must be allowed to vote as long as you're in it before the polls close. So if you're in the back of a long line at 7:25 and there are still several people ahead of you when the polls close at 7:30 (if that's the closing time at your polling place), you can't be turned away.
3. Overzealous ID checks
Voter ID laws require voters to show some form of identification, such as a driver's license or passport, at the polls before they cast a vote. States without voter ID laws generally have "non-documentary" identification requirements, under which voters can verify their identity in other ways, such as by signing an affidavit or poll book, or by providing personal information like their address or birth date.
Since 2010, many state legislatures have passed laws requiring that people show identification before casting a ballot. These laws have been challenged in court with varying degrees of success.
As a result, voter ID laws vary widely from state to state, so the identification you'll need to provide at the polls could range from nothing, to a utility bill, to a state-issued ID. Thirty-four states have laws on the books requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls, and in 31 of those states, the law will be enforceable on November 4.
This map, from the National Council of State Legislatures, shows how each state handles voter identification.
The National Council of State Legislatures also has a list of the specific forms of ID that are accepted in each state, as well as information on the options available to voters who can't provide the required ID.
It's important to know your state's law, because any poll worker who requires you to provide more ID than required is violating your rights. Ho said that he's aware of cases in Wisconsin and Texas — states that require photo identification — in which poll workers have gone too far, requiring that the address on a voter's identification matches the address on the rolls, when all that's actually required is that the voter's name and face match his or her identification.
4. Getting turned away without casting a provisional ballot
State voter ID laws differ when it comes to what happens to voters who can't produce the required identification. States with strict voter ID laws require voters who don't have the proper ID to vote using a provisional ballot and then take additional steps after Election Day (for example, returning to the election office with an ID) to ensure that their votes are counted.
States with less restrictive voter ID laws may let a person vote if he or she signs an affidavit certifying his or her identity, or they may allow election workers to verify whether the person was registered without the voter having to take any further action.
In any case, said Ho, while state laws differ when it comes to what happens if you fail to provide the proper ID and have to cast a provisional ballot, under federal law, poll workers are required to, at the very least, give you a provisional ballot.
Don't leave without casting one, even if you've forgotten your entire wallet, and even if the poll worker tries to send you away before you do.
5. No polling place can accommodate your disability
Polling places are required by federal law to be accessible to people with disabilities. If your own polling place isn't suitable — unable to accommodate wheelchairs, for example — he Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984requires election officials to make sure you have an alternate way to cast a ballot.
Most states will allow curbside voting (a poll worker runs a ballot out to you, and you complete it in your car) if you can't make it inside.
The law also requires the availability of voting aids for disabled and elderly voters. So don't be afraid to ask.
The only thing you should ever allow anyone to give you in exchange for casting your ballot is that little "I Voted" sticker that lets you show off to your colleagues that you've done your civic duty.
While laws vary by state, typical statutes prohibit anyone from giving you (or offering, lending, or promising to give or lend you) anything to get you to vote, refrain from voting, or vote a certain way.
This isn't a widespread problem. Ho said there have been little more than "sporadic reports, rumors, and allegations" about election bribery in recent memory. Still, the law takes this seriously. You and anyone who bribes you could each pay up to $10,000 and spend up to five years in jail.
So please, just let participation be its own reward for voting.
If someone is making voting difficult for you in a way that doesn't seem quite right, don't just give up and go home. Let the poll worker know that you understand your rights, and pick up the phone. Ho recommends calling the election protection hotline run by a coalition of civil rights organizations (1-866-OurVote), your county board of elections, state board of elections, or secretary of state's office.