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Voting FAQ

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, answers frequently asked questions about the election system.

1. If I have a suspicion that my vote isn't being counted or that there are irregularities at my polling place, what should I do?

2. How often do voting irregularities happen in America, and where can I find a record of these irregularities?

3. On the whole, how do the accuracy and efficiency of the American voting system compare with the systems in other countries?

4. Why are voting laws so different from state to state?

5. Why isn't there a single, standardized machine for voting?

6. What is a poll watcher, and how do I become one?

7. What is a provisional ballot, and how are provisional ballots counted?

8. Is voting a right or a privilege?

9. What exactly happened in the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore? Was the result of the 2004 election between George W. Bush and John Kerry disputed as well?

10. What changes have occurred in election procedures and legislation since 2004? Will things be better in November 2008?

11. Reader Question: You say that voting is a duty. Can you clarify what you mean by this? After all, we citizens might not like any of the candidates, or we might want to boycott elections for political reasons. Why do you think that voting is the duty of a citizen?

12. Reader Question: What is likelihood that my vote actually counts for something? Often, people don't vote because they don't feel like their vote makes any difference. What is the impact of one individual's vote on local elections, state elections and national elections?


Election Day - Ex-felon Leon Batts votes for the first time in his life in New York City on November 2, 2004.

Ex-felon Leon Batts votes for the first time in his life in New York City on November 2, 2004.

1. If I have a suspicion that my vote isn't being counted or that there are irregularities at my polling place, what should I do?

Call your local election official and call the Election Protection hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE (687-8683) to help resolve the issue for this election, and document the problem so it can be avoided in the future.


2. How often do voting irregularities happen in America, and where can I find a record of these irregularities?

Minor problems such as polls opening late, temporary voting machine malfunctions and registration errors are somewhat common, and these lead to some inaccuracy in our election results. Although it is rare that elections are so close as to have the final outcome jeopardized by irregularities, we must be vigilant in our oversight of elections and push for a better process. Common Cause's in-depth report of voting in 2006 (PDF) documented many of these irregularities in 10 states.


Election Day - Citizens of Quincy, Florida anxiously await the results in the local sheriff's race on November 2, 2004.

Citizens of Quincy, Florida anxiously await the results in the local sheriff's race on November 2, 2004.

3. On the whole, how do the accuracy and efficiency of the American voting system compare with the systems in other countries?

The United States ranks 139th out of 172 countries in voter turnout for elections from 1945 through 2008. This low participation is the single biggest reason that our election results do not accurately reflect the will of the people. And the United States falls in the 36 percent of countries in which the government does not proactively register its citizens to vote. We have among the most expensive and high-tech election equipment in the world, which is efficient at counting votes quickly but may not be the most accurate. At least 59 other countries, including Canada and Russia, hand-count ballots, which reduces machine error but is prone to human error and is time-consuming.


4. Why are voting laws so different from state to state?

Under our Constitution, each state has the authority to administer its own elections not only for state offices, but also for Congress and the presidency. Beyond that, in most states, each county or local jurisdiction makes its own decisions about which election equipment to use. Congress responded to some of the problems of the 2000 presidential election by passing the Help America Vote Act in 2002. This act sets minimum standards that must be met by all election equipment used in federal elections; it requires each state to establish one statewide database for voter registration and requires each state to allow voters to cast provisional ballots; and it requires all voters registering for the first time in a jurisdiction by mail to show some form of ID when registering or voting the first time. Due to ongoing problems with election administration, many observers think Congress should go even further, including establishing minimum standards for voting equipment to have a paper record for recounts, requiring random audits to be conducted, providing adequately trained poll workers and allowing all citizens to register to vote at the polls on election day.


5. Why isn't there a single, standardized machine for voting?

Different places require different types of equipment. For instance, in small towns, it can be easier to use paper ballots that can be hand-counted; other cities have different forms of elections — such as ranked voting in San Francisco — that are much easier to tally by machine. And in addition, large multicultural city such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York need to accommodate voters who speak many different languages. So having many different types of equipment allows room for innovation and locally appropriate technology; however, it can also lead to discrepancies if some areas receive inferior equipment because inferior equipment is more likely to result in votes going uncounted.


6. What is a poll watcher, and how do I become one?

Poll watchers observe voting at a polling place and the counting of ballots either at the polling place or a central location. In some states, you must be designated by a candidate, party or news media outlet to be a poll watcher. If you are interested in becoming a poll watcher, contact your local election official or political party.


7. What is a provisional ballot, and how are provisional ballots counted?

Sometimes voters do not appear on registration rolls at polling places because of clerical error, because they are at the wrong polling place or because they are not registered to vote. Other voters may not have brought with them the required specific forms of ID (which vary widely by state) to the polls. Federal law requires poll workers to provide these people with provisional ballots. If election officials can confirm that they were correctly registered, their vote is counted. Each state has different rules for when a provisional ballot should be counted. However, the federal Election Assistance Commission has found states are not uniformly implementing provisional ballots (PDF), and in some states, most provisional ballots are not counted.


8. Is voting a right or a privilege?

Voting is a duty. If we want to enjoy a system of self-government, we need the participation of each citizen to assure that our collective decisions benefit from the full wisdom of our people and honestly convey the consent of the governed. Erecting barriers to voting not only deprives individuals of their right to participate, but also denies our whole country the freedom to live in a true democracy. That's why the U.S. government describes voting and jury duty as two key responsibilities in its test for new citizens (PDF) who are applying for naturalization.


9. What exactly happened in the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore? Was the result of the 2004 election between George W. Bush and John Kerry disputed as well?

In 2000, Al Gore received more popular votes than George W. Bush, but Bush won the Electoral College vote, which hinged on the outcome in Florida. There were numerous problems with how the vote in Florida was conducted and counted, including: an overly broad purge of legally registered voters who were wrongly deemed to be former felons and marked ineligible; a faulty ballot design in Palm Beach that caused many people to unintentionally vote for both Al Gore and Pat Buchanan; and faulty punch card voting systems that resulted in many votes being inaccurately tallied by counting machines. Al Gore contested the election results by requesting a manual recount in select counties, which the U.S. Supreme Court halted in a controversial 5-4 ruling. An unofficial recount conducted later by news media organizations concluded that had the Supreme Court approved a recount in the select counties Gore requested he still would have lost the election, but had a statewide recount been conducted, he would have won Florida and become president.

In 2004, Bush defeated Kerry in the popular vote by a margin of more than 3 million votes, but Bush only narrowly won the Electoral College. The election was close in a number of states; Ohio was one of the states that determined the final outcome. There were numerous problems reported in Ohio's presidential election, including controversial decisions made by Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, such as rejecting some voter registration forms because of the thickness of the paper they were printed on, long lines at some polling places that did not have adequate numbers of voting machines, questionable purges of voter registration rolls and poor implementation of provisional ballots. John Kerry did not contest the final results in Ohio, although candidates of the Green and Libertarian parties did unsuccessfully seek a recount.


10. What changes have occurred in election procedures and legislation since 2004? Will things be better in November 2008?

California, Colorado and Ohio have conducted thorough reviews of their election equipment to ensure greater reliability.

Many states, such as Arizona, are doing a better job of registering voters at state agencies; high levels of participation during the 2008 presidential primaries means more voters are registered at up-to-date addresses, so there may be fewer registration errors.

North Carolina and Iowa have joined seven other states in allowing voter registration at the polls.

After a legal challenge, Florida has improved its voter purging practices; however, it has made it more difficult for civic groups to register voters.

More citizens are taking advantage of opportunities to vote early and vote by mail, and New Jersey, Colorado, Hawaii, Ohio and other states have made it easier to do so, which may reduce election day lines and other logistical problems.

However, recently enacted requirements in Georgia and Indiana that sharply restrict the forms of acceptable ID that voters are allowed to show at the polls, and a recent requirement to prove citizenship in Arizona may cause many eligible voters to be turned away at the polls.

Many states are also experiencing problems with their recently implemented statewide voter registration databases, which could cause long lines, a surge in provisional ballots and other problems this fall.


POV viewers suggested additional questions for this FAQ on the POV Blog and Derek has kindly agreed to answer two of them.

11. Reader Question: You say that voting is a duty. Can you clarify what you mean by this? After all, we citizens might not like any of the candidates, or we might want to boycott elections for political reasons. Why do you think that voting is the duty of a citizen?

If you do not like any of the candidates running, you should still cast a ballot but leave that race blank. This registers your opinion and prevents elected officials from misinterpreting lack of participation for complacency. Our government has the legitimate power to tax us and make laws that dictate our behavior only because it has the consent of the governed. If you do not consent, and do not support any candidate, you should make that known and perhaps think about running for office yourself.


12. Reader Question: What is likelihood that my vote actually counts for something? Often, people don't vote because they don't feel like their vote makes any difference. What is the impact of one individual's vote on local elections, state elections and national elections?

A single vote is more likely to make a decisive outcome in a smaller, local election than in a larger one. Common Cause is working to make every vote matter equally in presidential elections through supporting the National Popular Vote plan, which would encourage more people to vote because they would see their vote making a difference. (Read more about the National Popular Vote plan on Common Cause's website) But in every instance, your vote is your way to officially voice your opinion about how we govern ourselves, and this is important even when elections are decided by larger margins.


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Derek Cressman is Common Cause's assistant director of election reform. He works to enhance voter registration, increase voter participation, reform presidential elections to reflect the national popular vote and improve the process for drawing political districts. Derek has worked professionally on democracy issues since 1995, as the director of the State PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) Democracy Program and as founder and director of TheRestofUs.org. He is the author of The Recall's Broken Promise — How Big Money Still Runs California Politics.

Common Cause is a national network of active citizens who fight to ensure that powerful institutions in society serve the public interest, not narrow special interests. It serves as the people's watchdog to hold power accountable, advocate reforms that reduce the influence of powerful special interests and give people a voice in the decisions that affect their lives.





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