Got a Question About Voting in America? Ask an Expert.

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Why are voting laws so different from state to state? What’s a poll watcher, and how can you become one? Derek Cressman of Common Cause, a voting watchdog organization, answered some frequently asked questions about the U.S. election system on the POV companion website for Election Day, a film that chronicles the 2004 presidential election in 11 cities and towns across America. Election Day premieres this week on PBS (check local listings).

The good news in Election Day is that more and more Americans are bringing their passion for democracy to the polls, drawing unprecedented numbers of voters eager to make the most of their right to cast a ballot and have it counted. Taking place in the long shadow of 2000′s bitterly contested presidential vote, the 2004 election also brought more scrutiny of polling-place practices from citizens as well as international observers. The bad news in Election Day is that close scrutiny of American elections finds a surprisingly antiquated system, which often works as much to frustrate voter participation as to encourage it and which harbors wide disparities in access between rich and poor neighborhoods.

If you have a question about voting, check out our FAQ, and if your question isn’t there, submit it in the comments below. At the end of this week, we’ll pick one (or two), Derek will answer it, and we will add it to the Election Day FAQ feature.

Added July 15, 2008: Derek has answered two of the questions posed in the comments on the Election Day FAQ. Visit the FAQ to find out why he thinks voting is a duty, and how much your vote really matters.

  • Jon Andreoni

    FOREIGNID: 16510
    Hi, I was just reading the FAQ comments on voting and I had a question about one of the answers. You write under “Is Voting a Right or a Privilage” that voting is a duty. I feel that is not necessarily the case. When voting, don’t we have two rights: The right to vote and the right not to vote? That way we can truly be independent? After all, what if we don’t like any of the candidates, or we want to boycott elections for political reasons? In some countries like Australia it’s against the law not to vote. You are fined. Isn’t it good that we have that choice?

  • Jay Martin

    FOREIGNID: 16511
    Why is there an emphasis on counting ballots in a hurry? Most candidates don’t take office until weeks after the election, and most new laws don’t take effect immediately after the vote. And yet ballot counting starts as soon as the polls close in the evening and continues through the night. Why not start counting the next morning, when everyone is fresh and awake? Why not spend a few days, instead of rushing it, and do everything carefully?

  • Chabrelle

    FOREIGNID: 16512
    What is likelihood that my vote actually counts for something? I think this is an important question that makes a lot of people not vote (sort of like not picking up a penny on the floor). What’s the difference of impact from local to state to national elections?

  • Judith dePonceau

    FOREIGNID: 16513
    Wait just a moment! You did not answer question number 10. Please do it over. Several amendments to the constitution guarantee the right to vote. Why would the experts answer that it is a duty. Of course it is, but as one person noted, we can legally choose not to vote. It is not enough that I keep repeating that voting is a right. It needs to be answered with authority by the experts responding to FAQ. I don’t understand why it can be taken away from anyone, but for that discussion to happen, we need to start with the facts. Please answer the question, for all to see. Why raise the question in the film, leave it unanswered there, and then leave it unanswered by the experts. I seldom get this riled up, and anyone can get the answer by googling “right to vote,” and reading the lines from the Constitution, but that doesn’t excuse your leaving it unanswered here.

  • abdulla

    FOREIGNID: 16514
    Well, the honchos down Washington – not mention the nation’s retailers – are hoping you’ll quickly spend this manna from DC and in so doing, rejuvenate the flagging economy.
    Trivia Game Challenge

  • Mac McCann

    FOREIGNID: 16515
    I moved from Seattle, WA to Beloit, KS on 1 Oct 08. I am registered to vote in Washington (state). How do I go about voting in the upcoming presidential election now that I live in Kansas? Absentee/re-register/??
    Would appreciate any help.
    Thanks, Mac