Election 2016 Voter Guide: What to Do if You Run Into Problems at the Polls

There have been reports of several voting issues across the U.S. during early voting

Most Americans will cast their votes without any problems on Election Day, but some may be challenged on their voting eligibility, experience or witness voter intimidation, or have trouble finding the right polling place. 

There have been reports of several voting issues across the U.S. during early voting: A Texas judge ordered local election officials in San Antonio to stop incorrectly telling voters that photo ID is required to cast a ballot; an Iowa woman was charged with voter fraud after she allegedly voted for Donald Trump a second time; and civil rights advocates in North Carolina said voters were illegally dropped from registration lists after their eligibility was challenged.

The nation’s largest nonpartisan coalition of more than 100 organizations, led by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, has been fielding voters’ complaints from across the country since the primaries. The coalition will ramp up its efforts on Election Day, bringing 4,500 legal volunteers and 2,500 grassroots volunteers to help answer questions from voters calling into their Election Protection hotline. 

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They can be reached at 866-OUR-VOTE (English only), 888-VE-Y-VOTA (English/Spanish) and 888-API-VOTE (English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and Tagalog).

“We’re bracing for a higher volume of calls on Elections Day and remain vigilant,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director at the Lawyers’ Committee. “We want to ensure that voters are able to cast their ballot free from discrimination and harassment.”

Here’s what you should know before heading to the polls:

Am I ready to vote?:
Among the most frequently asked questions from people calling the Election Protection hotline over the years are: Am I registered? Where do I vote? What do I need to bring with me? 

Voting laws vary from state to state and before casting a ballot voters should verify that they are registered to vote at their current address, find out where their polling place is and ensure they have the proper form of identification required by state law — if ID is even required. People who moved recently and did not change their address for voting purposes may face additional obstacles in getting to the right voting place or will have to cast a provisional ballot, instead. Contact your local board of elections to ensure you’re registered to vote and check out this vote prep plan. Google has also made it easy to find out where your polling place is. 

Still confused? Call the hotline. 

“We’re on the phones, but we’re also sitting in front of the computer and we can help people in real time by finding their voter information,” said Adam Laughton, an associate at Seyfarth Shaw law firm who will serve as a call center captain in Houston, Texas.

He added that local election board websites often get overwhelmed on Election Day, so calling the hotline can be the quickest way to access voter registration information. Election Protection volunteers can also be found at many polling places and there are lawn signs in front of polling sites advertising the hotline.

Voter ID Laws: 
Voter ID laws vary from state to state and a recent national survey found that Americans are confused about voter ID laws. According to the survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, some voters live in states that do not require identification to vote but think it is needed. Others live in states that require IDs but mistakenly believe they do not need one to vote, the survey found.

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Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have no identification requirement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twenty-two states “request” identification but provide conditions that permit voters without it to cast a ballot without requirements to confirm identity. That means voters can cast a provisional ballot or sign an affidavit of identity in order to vote. Ten remaining states have “strict” identification requirements. Check your state's requirements before heading to the polls as there have been changes to some states’ voter ID laws.

In the summer of 2013 the Supreme Court eliminated a vital provision of the Voting Rights Act, triggering more than a dozen state legislatures to pass restrictive voter ID laws. Federal courts across the U.S. have overturned, challenged or blocked some of those laws. 

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One such example is the Texas voter identification law. A federal appeals court loosened ID rules in July, allowing voters to present alternative documentation such as a voter registration certificate or a utility bill and sign a document affirming a reasonable difficulty in obtaining a photo ID. Despite the ruling, voting rights groups say not all polling locations are relaying that message.

Laughton said incorrect printed instructions about the voter ID law were posted in polling places in San Antonio and the hotline has been fielding calls from confused voters and poll workers across the state.

"Poll workers just don’t have the grasp on the final points of the law and how it’s changed or the workaround the court put in place," he said. 

Voters Being Challenged:
A voter’s eligibility can be questioned before they complete and cast a ballot by voter challengers at polling sites, according to the Lawyers’ Committee. The voting challengers might be appointed by political parties or other organizations, depending on state law. These voter challenges “are often fraught with discriminatory practices and can intimidate qualified voters from voting,” the Lawyers’ Committee said.

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“Generally speaking, your identity your citizenship, whether you’ve already voted, those are all reasons someone can properly challenge a voter,” said Adam Humann, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis law firm in New York which is running one of the Election Protection call centers. “Things like race, ethnicity, gender — those are not proper basis to challenge a voter.”

Each state has a different procedure for how to overcome a challenge. The Lawyers’ Committee recommends that if someone is challenged at a polling site they should contact the hotline so an attorney could walk them through the process.

“The first thing is to remain calm and recognize that in every state there’s a legitimate basis for people to challenge voters and that’s done to protect the integrity of the system,” Humann said. “There should be election officials on site who can assist if there are voter challenge issues and here’s a lot of resources if you’re worried that people are making improper challenges or acting improperly.”

Voter Intimidation:
There’s a history of voter intimidation in past U.S. elections and this year may not be any different. According to Clarke, voters have been calling the Election Protection hotline with complaints that they felt intimidated when showing up to vote early. In Texas, Laughton said, there have been instances of unofficial poll workers and campaign volunteers telling voters at a polling places to go to a non-existent polling site. 

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“We encourage people to call our hotline even if it doesn’t personally affect them but they see something wrong at the polling place, if it’s intimidating signs, presence, or poll workers acting inappropriately,” Laughton said. He added that volunteers can contact a county attorney’s office which may direct deputies to go to a polling place if there’s a disruptive situation.

The Lawyer’s Committee suggests the following steps when met with voter intimidation: “First, do not engage. Second, continue inside and make sure you vote. Then notify a poll worker or official. Third, call the Election Protection hotline: 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683). From there, concerned voters can pass along info and local polling officials will be notified and take the proper next steps.”

In addition to answering the hotlines, the coalition has representatives on the ground at polling places in 28 states. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which supports state and county election officials, will be monitoring for voter fraud and disruptive election behavior.

Provisional Ballots:
If a voter is not able to cast a regular ballot because their name is not appearing on the registration list at the polling place, the voter does not have a required form of voter identification, or an election official challenges the voter’s eligibility, they should cast a provisional ballot.

After a voter has cast a provisional ballot, election officials determine whether or not to count the provisional ballot by verifying the voter’s eligibility. Depending on the state, a voter might have to take additional steps to verify eligibility in order for the provisional ballot to count.

According to the Lawyers’ Committee, many poll workers are improperly trained to handle provisional ballots, and may fail to inform voters’ of their right to it. They can also mistakenly misinform an eligible voter entitled to cast a regular ballot that the voter must instead cast provisional ballot.

“A provisional ballot is the last resort,” said Laughton. “They will be counted several days after the election.”

There are no clear and uniform standards for counting provisional ballots, according to the Lawyers’ Committee and many states do not count provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct, while others do. Provisional ballots can also be rejected if the voter is not registered to vote, the voter did not complete or sign the provisional ballot or the voter did not provide sufficient identification.

Problems With Voting Machines:
There are various types of new and old voting machines being used across the U.S. and if you see a machines malfunctioning, alert a poll worker or call the Election Protection hotline.

“Anyone using an electronic voting machine, kind of like an ATM, make sure it has registered your vote for the candidate you intended to vote for before you press that last button to submit your vote,” said Marjorie Lindblom, a retired partner at Kirkland & Ellis and the former national co-chair of the Lawyers' Committee. “Just always check to make sure your vote is going to count correctly.”

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump raised suspicions in late October about the voting machines in Texas despite producing no evidence of an actual problem.

"A lot of call-ins about vote flipping at the voting booths in Texas. People are not happy. BIG lines. What is going on?" Trump said in a tweet.

But Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos, a Republican, said that there was no evidence of vote-flipping, a term that's used to describe a correctable technical glitch on older electronic voting machines.

Loughton said if a voter notices a lot of machines down, the line getting long, and poll workers not acting to resolve it, report the problem to the Election Protection hotline. Long lines can mean there’s a high turnout or that a county has done a poor job planning and didn’t get enough machines and poll workers, he said. 

Another issue that's come up in early voting this year are voter selfies. Nineteen states prohibit posting photos of ballots and voting laws for ballot selfies are unclear in a dozen states, according to reports. 

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