That's the bottom line of advice doled out on The Early Show Monday by AARP Senior VP Mark Kitchens, who offered five basic pointers:
Make sure you're registered and bring your ID
Before you can vote, you have to register (except in North Dakota). Each state has a different deadline for voter registration, but in most states, you need to have registered at least 30 days before Election Day. A few states don't accept MAIL-IN voter registration forms, which means you must register in-person.
The states that have same-day registration are: Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
The AARP advises everyone to bring information identifying them by name and address and, if possible, with a photo. At the very least, bring a utility bill from your current home address and, if possible, a driver's license or work ID. Again: Check your state's rules; some locations require a voter registration card.
It is critical to note that such ID -- especially photo ID, except in Georgia, Indiana and Florida -- IS NOT REQUIRED. The reason to bring ID is to protect against some glitch in the voting rolls, or some quirk in local procedures, or at worst, some personality trait that causes an election official to question your right to vote. Better to have an easy answer than risk having to spend time proving your identity. First-time registrants who didn't show ID when they registered can be required to show ID.
Know where your polling place is and when it closes
Most polls close between 6 p.m. (such as Indiana and Kentucky) and 9p.m. (such as New York and Maine). In some states, such as Maine, you only need to be in line at the time the polls close in order to vote; others may not be as lenient. Also, make sure you're voting at the correct voting place -- your vote may not count if you go to the wrong location.
Your state election board will have the details, or you can go to Pew's Election site at www.electiononline.org. Or see the tool we have on the left of this story.
Democrats and Republicans vote on the same day
Election Day is Tuesday. Period. Sadly, we see the rumor that Democrats and Republicans vote on different days perpetuated at election time. Flyers are left in neighborhoods stating that Election Day is one day for Republicans and the other for Democrats. For federal offices (president, Congress), Election Day occurs on the Tuesday following the first Monday of November, regardless of state, party, religion, race or sex. There have been robo-calls going out misleading people on the date.
Leave the political gear at home
Many states will allow you to cover up a political t-shirt or button, but best to just leave all political gear home until after you vote. This varies widely by state. For instance, Washington, D.C. and Maryland will permit you to vote if you have an unapproved t-shirt or sticker, as long as it's covered or removed before entering the polling site. Across the Potomac River in Virginia, however, you're not allowed to vote if you come within a certain proximity of the poll site with an unapproved t-shirt, etc. The distance from the poll site for disapproved items also varies from 50 feet to 500 feet across jurisdictions - just within Virginia!
Your vote matters
Here's a fact: The 2004 election was decided by fewer than 120,000 votes in Ohio. The 2000 election came down to 537 votes in Florida. That doesn't even count statewide races, such as Washington's 2004 gubernatorial election, which was decided by 129 votes. The reality is that, in 2004, more than 14 million people who were registered to vote, didn't. When elections come down to thousands, hundreds and sometimes dozens of votes, showing up is everything.