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If you're confused or nervous about what will happen on Election Day, you're not alone. The United States is characterized by an extremely decentralized election administration system that is mysterious and inconsistent from state-to-state. Voter suppression has also swiftly made headlines this election, despite higher early voter turnouts than in 2016.
Understanding how the system works may take a lifetime, with experts even saying that no one can understand it fully.
If you're voting on Election Day, don't let those unknowns phase you. This list may not teach you the ins and outs of the electoral system, but it will give you vital information to make sure your participation is counted.
Don't allow yourself to be turned away
If you find yourself in a long line, stay there. While voter suppression experts say that long lines aren't always evidence of direct voter suppression per se, they can be evidence of a lack of planning. The number of voting machines or poll workers may fluctuate wildly from past years, and some precincts do not have the resources to plan well for changing election day turnouts.
Carol Fuller, Chief of Elections for Crystal City precinct 006 in Alexandria, Virginia—who has worked the polls since 2011—says that people are most commonly turned away for showing up to the wrong precinct on Election Day. While some states allow early voting at any location in the county a voter is registered in, Election Day in-person ballots must be cast at one's home precinct.
If a voter shows up to the wrong location, a poll worker should check the official poll book, a program that allows them to review state-wide voter registration information, to direct the voter to their proper precinct. As people move around, in and out of their precinct, going to the wrong precinct is a common mistake that the poll workers should be prepared to handle.
If you're in the right place, as long as you are in line at or before the time your polling place closes, you have a legal right to vote—even if polls technically close before the line moves. If someone informs you that you cannot enter once you're there, that is illegal, according to Evan Wayne Malbrough, the founder of Georgia Youth Poll Worker Project. Malbrough founded the project this year that recruits college-aged students and trains them to become poll workers.
Know what to do if you spoil your ballot
Fuller said that a common mistake voters make when voting in person is mismarking the boxes on their ballot. "That's a spoiled ballot. We cancel it out and we give them a new ballot," she said.
If this happens, the voting machine—depending on which one you are using—should reject the ballot with a red light and print out a piece of paper informing the voter that something is wrong. Watching the machine count your vote ensures that you know immediately what the problem is, and the poll worker stationed by the machine should take the ballot back and hand you a new one.
"We track those and send them to the central district and we do a new ballot," Fuller said.
Keep an eye on your poll worker's actions when you submit your ballot, too. Fuller said that sometimes voters with handicaps who choose curbside voting can be mistakenly marked as having voted inside of the precinct. In the poll book, there is a category called "voting outside" of the polls, when the poll worker will go out to a voter waiting in a car and verify their identity before allowing them to vote from the curb.
When those ballots come back, they are slipped into a scanner—if the polling place is using a scan voting system—and processed as a regular ballot, but the ballot is marked as "voting outside" of the polls.
"If the numbers don't match—if we have one more ballot issue that goes through the scanner or one more in the scanner than the poll book, we have to figure out what it is," said Fuller.
If you don't have the right ID, fill out a provisional ballot
"You can go to a precinct without adequate voter ID and still pass the ballot." Malbrough said. "You just have to fill out a provisional ballot. Everyone has a right to a provisional ballot, and poll workers are required to offer someone a provisional ballot."
Additionally, if anything prevents you from voting on the machines, you can—and should—request a provisional ballot.
Provisional ballots are used to record votes when there is a question about a voter's eligibility and should be viewed by an election official. In some states, you are entitled to know if your provisional ballot is counted as it moves through the process, and can track it on a government website.
Don't mail your absentee ballot today
According to Malbrough and Fuller, if you're voting absentee and mail your ballot in today, it may not be counted in time, depending on your state's deadlines.
Malbrough said that if you can't vote in person, the best option is to drop your absentee ballot off at a county office. For the most peace of mind, he suggests voters avoid general collection drop boxes on Election Day, as well. As states continue litigation around mailing and counting deadlines, it's possible your drop box might not be picked up on time, even if you drop it off on the legal last possible day. Instead, if you're worried about your ballot's status, you can go to a certified county drop box center and drop it off directly.
Malbrough also said that at your county election office, your submission will be timed stamped—and you can ask for the workers to do so in front of you.
While Fuller said that her precinct in Arlington does a really good job with managing drop boxes during the elections, some other states may be harder to keep track of. Some counties in Texas have just one drop-box per county.
Don't be accused of double-voting
For those who requested absentee ballots but are opting to vote in person, Fuller suggests bringing your absentee form with you to your precinct when you vote in person, so that a poll worker can void it. If you were issued an absentee ballot, it should be reflected in the poll book.
A poll worker should also be able to assist you with a provisional ballot if you lost your original absentee ballot or it did not come in the mail yet, which Fuller said, is a common problem with an easy fix.
The punishment for casting a ballot via two methods can be a felony, punishable by imprisonment and a steep fine in the thousands in some states.
Protect yourself against COVID-19
Your precincts should be providing PPE, such as cloth masks and gloves, along with hand sanitizer and disinfecting equipment. Many states cannot legally force someone to wear a mask, so Malbrough said you should also maintain six feet of distance at the polls even if you are wearing a mask.
However, that's easier said than done in some states than it is in others. In Arlington, Fuller said her precinct is able to social distance because far fewer people are voting in-person on Election Day than originally expected, as over 55 percent of the county has already voted early.
Fuller said her county has been only allowing a maximum of 12 voters inside to maintain safe distances. However, this pace may be harder to keep up at more-populated precincts, and could contribute to longer lines.
Workers also regularly clean and sanitize the station after a voter leaves, and throw out pens into a box and to get disinfected. Workers do not touch ballots after the voter has handled them, placing them into a protective seal.
If you have COVID-19 or are visibly sick, Fuller said in her state poll workers can ask you not to come in—and will offer a curbside option.
See also: Voting Under Lockdown
Know the difference between a poll worker and a poll watcher
Poll workers are the only people certified to handle voter information. Poll watchers are apolitical bodies that observe the election process to make sure all procedures are being followed. "Poll defenders," as some groups are naming themselves, are really the same as poll watchers.
"They have a different name because of marketing," Malbrough said. Poll workers—who can legally handle your ballot—will have an official badge.
Malbrough recruits most of the workers in his organization on social media. He hopes to create a student-poll worker pipeline through recruitment, going to campuses, and informing people about the importance of poll workers.
Malbrough said that younger poll workers are essential because traditionally, many poll workers are over the age of 60 and at a higher risk of getting COVID-19. Younger people are also more adept to changing technology used at polling stations.
"I am going to be 73 in a few weeks and we are the vulnerable population," said Fuller. "There has been a push to bring in younger people to allow the older people who don't feel safe."
Fuller says that this year, her precinct has more volunteers than she can use due to posting on social media calls for younger volunteers. "In other places they have limited the number of precincts because they couldn't get enough volunteers," she said.