Election Day, this year, is also the deadline for nearly all of the reforms mandated by the Help America Vote Act, the sweeping overhaul of the nation's antiquated voting machinery that was enacted after the ballot breakdown of 2000.
Some voter groups predict chaos. Others foresee long lines and vote counts stretching beyond midnight. Election officials have called for calm and for patience at the voting booth.
Voters can do a number of things to prepare themselves for all the changes — which include new state lists for verifying registration; new electronic machines that will be used by 1 in 3 Americans, and changes in state laws about what kind of identification voters must present at the precinct.
According to voter rights groups and nonpartisan election organizations, these are the best guidelines for protecting your right to vote and for getting help at the polls:
Know Your Precinct, Your Ballot And Your Machine
One of the easiest ways to be turned away on Election Day is to show up at the wrong precinct. Many local election administrators have Web sites on which polling places can be found. Independent Web sites such as canivote.org have state-by-state interactives linking a voter's address and polling site. Often, county Web sites also post ballots online, along with instructions for using the kind of voting machine in your precinct.
Bring More Than One Kind Of Identification
In recent weeks, a confusing array of court decisions has struck down or let stand strict rules for voter ID. In Missouri, for example, a judge overturned a government-issued photo identification requirement, prompting some election officials to worry about confusion among poll workers about what is required to vote. If you don't have a driver's license or passport, bringing recent utility bills showing your name and address, as well as a voter registration card, may help streamline ID questions.
WAIT! Don't Push That Button!
If you're using a touch screen machine, make sure you take extra time to thoroughly review your choices. "When you get to the point where you're ready to cast your ballot, make sure you read the review screen slowly," says Doug Lewis, executive director of The Election Center, a national association of election officials. "Because once you press that 'cast ballot' button, there's not a human being on the planet who can help you get that back." In the 2004 election, some voters claimed touch-screen machines converted their choice to the wrong candidate. Without a paper receipt, such claims are difficult to prove. Less than 50 percent of states have paper-receipt equipment.
You Have The Right To A Provisional Ballot
If your name does not appear on the polling site's registration list, or there are other questions about the validity of your registration, you have the right to cast a so-called provisional ballot. Introduced nationwide in the 2004 election, provisional ballots are designed to prevent wrongful disenfranchisement. In 2000, at least 1.5 million voters were turned away because of questions about their registration, according to estimates from civil rights groups.
To cast a provisional ballot, you must fill out a form at the polling site, listing your name, address and party affiliation. Your sealed ballot is placed inside the form. If officials find you are indeed registered to vote, your sealed ballot goes into the voting box. If you're not registered, election officials use your information to register you for the next election.
If In Doubt, Ask A Poll Worker
Having a problem with a machine? Don't understand the ballot? Need help in pulling a cumbersome lever? Ask a poll worker. They are ostensibly trained to operate all equipment, and to help a citizen vote. That means pulling the lever, or marking the ballot of anyone too frail or in need of assistance.
But sometimes even the poll workers don't know how to operate the newest machines, and sometimes they don't show up to work on time, as was seen Baltimore in the September primary. Still, it is best to ask a poll worker rather than one of the partisan poll watchers who have descended on precincts in recent elections to monitor voters — sometimes injecting themselves into questions that arise at polling places, according to election officials.
"In a lot of cases, they're interpreting it the way they want to interpret it," Lewis said. "And they're wrong." Also, voters sometimes are just too shy about holding up the line, or appearing uneducated, to ask a poll worker for help.
"People get there, and they think 'I'm a bad citizen. I shouldn't ask a question, I should know this,"' said Doug Chapin of the nonpartisan group electionline.org. "It's not unusual for things not to go 100 percent right during an election, and it's perfectly OK to ask for help. That's what poll workers are there for."