If You See Problems When Voting at the Polls, Use These Strategies to Handle Them

Be prepared in case you see problems at the polls on November 8 — or if you see someone else being targeted.
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Publish date:
October 31, 2016
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voting rights, voting, election

The election is eight days away, and though nearly 13 million of us have already voted, that still leaves a whole lot of people, like maybe you, who are voting old-school style at the actual polls on election day. I actually miss the giddy feeling of being surrounded by fellow voters in musty appropriated public spaces, but I'm also well aware of the many, many things that can go wrong.

No, Donald, not election rigging: Challenges at the polls that interfere with your right to vote or have an intimidating effect. It's better to come armed (with knowledge, please leave your guns at home) for Election Day than to be caught out wrong-footed.

What if I see aggressive poll watchers?

You may have heard about Trump's plans to recruit an army of poll watchers, so it's time to have a quick sidebar. There are a couple of different kinds of poll watchers, and not all of them are created equal.

First, there are federal observers dispatched by the Department of Justice in some states and in some areas. Thanks to Shelby County v. Holder, the number of people the DOJ can send out has been curtailed, but they're still out there, and their nonpartisan job is to keep an eye on problems at the polls. They should clearly identify themselves and provide information about why they're there.

Then, there are the rest. Depending on the rules in your state and precinct, people can sign up to be "poll watchers" with the ostensible purpose of monitoring election integrity. Some are part of nonpartisan voter rights organizations, others are partisan. They're legally entitled to be there, and theoretically are there to make sure that the outcome of the election is valid and not subject to manipulation. Some, however, are very clearly there to engage in voter suppression tactics.

Poll watchers are not allowed to follow you into the voting booth, tell you how to vote, or intimidate you. In some states, however, they can challenge you, demanding that you produce proof that you are in fact eligible to vote, and forcing polling place workers to verify that proof. Some states also allow any voter registered at a precinct, regardless of poll watcher status, to challenge other voters.

What do I do if I get challenged?

State-by-state rules for demonstrating voter eligibility are incredibly internecine, so before you head out on Election Day, contact your county clerk to find out exactly what you need to vote. Get receipts: Bring a copy of the email you received or record your call (TapeACall is a super-great app for recording calls, FYI). Whether it's a poll worker or poll watcher who challenges you, don't be afraid to escalate to the supervisor of the precinct. If federal or nonpartisan observers are present, alert them to what's going on.

You may be pushed to cast a provisional ballot. Weigh that option carefully, because if you are an eligible voter and you have fulfilled the legal requirements for voting that day, you should be allowed to cast a regular ballot. Don't be afraid to raise a stink. Remember: Poll workers are ordinary people who volunteer to work at the polls, not (usually) attorneys with an extensive knowledge of election law. You can ask them to contact the registrar of voters or another local election officials to resolve the situation.


What do I do if I see someone else get challenged?

Elections aren't every voter for themselves. Partisan poll watchers and workers alike will be choosing people to profile for voter challenges, which is why two people of, say, different races with identical documentation may face a very different reception when they sign in to vote.

If you see someone else getting challenged and you are in a position of greater social clout — you're white, you're a native English speaker, etc. — speak up. Ask, for example, why your secondary ID was accepted to allow you to vote when someone who brought her primary ID is being turned away. If people outside a polling place are hassling someone who is trying to enter, you can escort them in, and a little subterfuge is fine ("Oh, hey, fancy meeting you here. I was just going in to vote, do you want to come with?").

Quick tips:

Electioneering: You are not allowed to campaign inside or directly next to a polling place (laws vary and there are usually signs). Make sure you aren't displaying campaign buttons and swag, and yeah, sorry, you're going to have to throw a jacket or sweater on over your "Cat Ladies for Hillary" shirt.

If you spoil your ballot: Depending on how you vote in your precinct, review your ballot (paper or screen) carefully before you submit it. If you see a problem and can't roll it back (as, for example, if you accidentally bubbled in "Jill Stein" instead of, say, someone else), call a poll worker over, explain that you spoiled your ballot, and ask for a new one. The worker should destroy your ballot and provide you with a clean slate. After you turn your ballot in, be sure to retain the receipt.

If you're disabled: You have the right to have someone accompany you into the voting booth if you need assistance filling out your ballot. Poll workers cannot ask you to do this in public: You are entitled to privacy. Your polling place should also have accessible voting equipment. If they do not, file a complaint. If your polling place is inaccessible (which is illegal), you may be asked to vote outside in your car, which is not OK, but will at least ensure that you get to cast a ballot. Be sure to file a report about that, too.

If you want to bring material into your polling booth: Voting is not a closed-book exam. Many states (like California) have large numbers of ballot measures and races, and you are absolutely allowed to bring in a cheat sheet to remind yourself of how you're voting (like, say, no on 60 in California) so you don't get flustered and make a mistake. You can also use your phone to pull up info if you need or want to.

Returning your absentee/mail ballot: Get that puppy in the mail ASAP if you haven't already, and be aware that the post office will deliver it without postage, but a stamp is a generally good idea. If you're down to the wire, you may be able to return your ballot to an early voting site or county clerk's office on or before Election Day, and to a polling site on Election Day itself, but call to confirm, because the laws vary by state and sometimes by county as well.

Your vote is private: Sport that "I voted" sticker with pride, and if you feel like talking about how you voted, get down with your bad self. You're also entitled to confidentiality, however, and it's fine to put your foot down and say you don't feel comfortable discussing your vote.

Who you gonna call?

Sometimes you need to call in the big guns if your attempts at resolving the issue on a local level aren't working out — or if they did, but you still feel your rights were abridged. Fortunately, there are a lot of them out there for you to choose from.

Election Protection 866 OUR-VOTE (888 VE-Y-VOTA for Spanish speakers): A massive nonpartisan voter rights undertaking that wants to hear about any and all problems you have at the polls. If you're challenged or see irregularities (including unjust challenges of other voters), call them ASAP with as many details as possible, preferably from just outside the polling place. Any voter is welcome to call Election Protection, and their services include assistance for disabled voters (many state disability rights groups are running their civil rights hotlines through Election Protection this year).

Department of Justice Voting Rights Hotline 800 253-3931/TTY 877 267-8971: Even if federal observers aren't on the ground where you are, the DOJ wants to know about issues you encounter at the polls. You can also file a complaint online.

ACLU 877 523-2792: One of the most prestigious civil rights organizations in America is also standing by to help. Depending on the nature of your situation, they can offer a variety of services.

NAACP and the National Urban League 866 MY-VOTE1: The National Voter Empowerment Hotline can assist you with voting needs in addition to helping you if you're challenged or encounter other difficulties at the polls.

Asian American Advancing Justice 888 API-VOTE: This multilingual hotline is staffed by people familiar with issues faced by Asian-American voters, including immigrants.