On Tuesday, tens of millions of Americans are expected to head to the polls. For most, the process will be relatively painless, but some may face delays and other frustrations.
“Election Day tends to lay bare all of the little and big errors in our voter registration system,” said Myrna Pérez, the deputy director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “It reveals that our election systems are often not resourced properly, that our election administrators have an incredibly big job to do.”
A national patchwork of laws, rules and practices can make the voting process feel complicated at times. But those who run into issues shouldn’t give up.
“Don’t despair, just persist,” Ms. Pérez said. “People wait in line for iPhones and amusement park rides and things like that. This is a lot more important.”
Here’s a brief guide to help you prepare to cast your ballot.
Before you vote
Find out when and where to vote. In most states, polling places open at 6 or 7 a.m. and close at 7 or 8 p.m., but it’s important to check, as times can vary by location.
Most state election offices make it easy for voters to find their polling place online and learn when it opens and closes. Several nonprofits have tools that do the same, such as GettothePolls.com, a joint effort from state and local officials, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and Google; and Vote411.org, a project of the League of Women Voters Education Fund.
If you can’t make it to your assigned location, you might be allowed to vote elsewhere, generally with a provisional ballot, depending on the state.
Don’t assume you can’t vote. Even if you haven’t registered or you think that you’re ineligible, research your options: you may still be able to vote.
For example, it’s true that the registration closed weeks ago in much of the country, but residents of 17 states and Washington, D.C., may register on Election Day, according to a March review by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
And while at least three states permanently ban people with felony convictions from voting, others restore the right over time.
Avoid the lines. Because polling locations are generally busiest during the morning rush hour, at lunchtime and in the evening, those with flexible schedules might have better luck by voting very early, at midmorning or at midafternoon.
Research what to bring. About two-thirds of states expect residents to provide identification to vote, but requirements vary, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states accept only photo IDs, while others accept alternatives. Some are strict, others more lenient. Voters who forget their IDs may still be allowed to vote using a provisional ballot.
Check with your state or local election office to figure out if you need identification and, if so, what kind.
Read up on the ballot. It can be overwhelming to sift through all of the information and misinformation out there, but there are resources to help.
A good place to start is with state and local election offices, which often provide voter guides — with varying degrees of detail — online or by mail. Election officials often also publish sample ballots so voters know what to expect and can avoid confusion in the booth.
Several nonpartisan groups provide unvarnished voter information, too. Ballotpedia, a nonprofit encyclopedia written by a staff of researchers and writers, contains a wealth of information and maintains a sample ballot lookup. Similar tools are available through other organizations, including Vote411.org, Vote USA and BallotReady, to name a few. ProPublica, the nonprofit newsroom, maintains tools such as ElectionBot and Represent to help readers find information and articles on local issues and candidates.
Voters can also seek out endorsements from sources they trust, such as local newspapers, special interest groups and professional organizations.
At the polling place
Don’t be intimidated. The federal government and many states ban voter intimidation, which can take many forms. Examples include aggressively questioning an individual’s citizenship or qualifications to vote, falsely claiming to be an election official and spreading false information about voting requirements, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
To report intimidation, voters can notify local and state officials and call or text the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE or 888-VE-Y-VOTA in Spanish, or the Justice Department at 800-253-3931 and TTY line 877-267-8971.
Many states do allow certified poll monitors to observe the voting process, though. The monitors, who are trained, may have the authority to challenge a person’s voting qualifications, though they are not typically allowed to interact with individuals directly. A voter whose qualifications are challenged may still be allowed to vote after giving a sworn affidavit that they satisfy said qualifications.
Ask for help. Generally, election officials are prepared to accommodate the needs of all voters, including those with disabilities and those who need language assistance.
Voters with disabilities, for example, have the right to accessible polling places and voting booths; to bring a service animal into the polling place; to seek assistance from polling place workers; and to bring someone with them to vote, as long as that person is not an employer or union representative.
Under federal law, more than 260 jurisdictions are required to provide some form of language assistance, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission. And many state and local jurisdictions do so on their own.
Stay in line. Advocates say that anyone in line to vote by the time the polls close should stick around. “As long as you are in line, you need to make sure that you stay and cast your ballot,” said Virginia Kase, the chief executive of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters.
Be thorough. Ballots can be confusing, so it’s important to read the directions, review the ballot and take your time. State and local election officials may provide sample ballots ahead of time so voters know what to expect and poll workers may be able to help, too.
Get a provisional ballot if necessary. Under federal law, nearly every state must provide provisional ballots to eligible voters denied access to the booth. While a handful of states are exempted, several offer the ballots anyway. And only three, Idaho, Minnesota and New Hampshire, offer none at all, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
If a voter fills out a provisional ballot, federal law also mandates that poll workers provide them with a piece of paper explaining what they need to do to have their ballot counted and how they can check if it has been counted.
“They need to demand that piece of paper and they need to check,” Ms. Pérez said.
Everything You Need to Know for the Midterm Elections
The midterm elections are around the corner. If you haven’t been keeping up with what’s going on, or have been and are still confused, take a look at our cheat sheet.