Questions And Answers On Voting Rules

More Questions?

If you have further questions regarding voting procedures, dates, deadlines or your registration, make sure to call your local election office or visit www.canivote.org.

Listeners have submitted lots of questions about voting rules, and this Q&A attempts to answer some of those most frequently asked. Almost all states and many county election offices have good Web sites and toll-free phone numbers where you can find more specific answers. The National Association of Secretaries of State also has a Web site, www.canivote.org, where voters can check their registration status online, find their polling site and get other useful voting information specific to their state or county.

"I was told that it's illegal to wear any campaign 'paraphernalia' to the voting booth, even if it is simply a button or a T-shirt for your candidate. I was also told that if you wore this 'paraphernalia,' they can legally turn you away from voting. Is this true?"

— Rebecca Mielczarek, New York

Many people asked similar questions, and unfortunately, the answer differs from state to state. In South Carolina, for example, voters are not allowed to wear any campaign paraphernalia, including T-shirts, at the polls. Alabama has no such clothing restrictions, though you can't loiter at the polls or leave any campaign material inside the polling place. In states that forbid campaign wear, officials usually will just ask the voter to remove the hat or button, and either cover up the shirt or turn it inside out. But in San Diego County, they've purchased several dozen paper smocks that voters can use to cover up any political messages. Otherwise, those voters will have to go home and change. It's best to check with your election office for the local rules, or else keep the campaign gear at home.

"I run into people who have served time in the penitentiary who think they are not allowed to vote. Is it true that after they have served their time and paid their debt to society, they do not get their full citizenship back?"

— Cathy Brec, Sioux Falls, S.D.

It is true in some states. Former felons are permanently barred from voting in Virginia and Kentucky unless they can get the governor to restore their rights on an individual basis. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia automatically restore voting rights when an inmate is released from prison. Twenty states allow felons to vote only after they've completed probation and parole. Maine, Vermont and Puerto Rico allow convicted criminals to vote while they're still in prison. You can find a good analysis and a state-by-state breakdown here.

"Is it true that with early voting, which is the same as absentee voting in many states, the votes are only counted if there's a tie? Or are all votes counted regardless of the method used to cast them? I am seriously confused about whether I should vote early, or wait until Nov. 4."

— Namita Biggins, Charlotte, N.C.

All eligible absentee ballots and early votes are counted. It doesn't have to be a tie or even a close race for them to count. Usually they're tallied on Election Day, though sometimes absentee ballots — especially those from overseas — might not be counted until several days after the election. However, the votes are still included in the official results. Sometimes voters whose names aren't on the rolls or who don't have the proper ID will be asked to cast something called a provisional ballot. That ballot is counted only after election officials have verified that the voter is eligible. A fair number of provisional ballots get rejected, so it's best not to use one if you don't have to.

"I've heard of absentee ballots, but what is early voting, and how do the laws differ from state to state?

— Rebecca Simmons, Phoenix

Absentee ballots are usually done on paper and sent through the mail. In some states, you have to have an excuse to vote absentee, such as being out of town on Election Day. But in other states, anyone can vote absentee. Early in-person voting — allowed in 34 states — usually involves going to your local election office and voting on the same kind of equipment you'd be using on Election Day. It's one way officials hope to shorten the lines on Nov. 4. Here is a good breakdown of the state-by-state rules.

"My daughter is overseas right now and applied for an absentee ballot before she left. We asked that it be sent to her home address here in Bronx, N.Y., because she did not have an overseas address at that time. We still have not received it. When are absentee ballots typically mailed out? How can I follow up on her behalf to make sure we receive it in time to send it to her overseas, and then have her send it in to vote?"

— Mary Schiller, Bronx, N.Y.

Getting absentee ballots out in time for overseas American voters is a common problem. Usually, states start sending out absentee ballots about 30 to 45 days before the election. You should probably call your local election office to see if they've been sent out yet. There's still time. Overseas ballots don't need to be received in New York until Nov. 17, though they must be postmarked by Nov. 3. And if your daughter doesn't get the ballot on time, there's something called the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot that can be downloaded online and sent in instead. It will allow her to vote only in federal elections, though — for president and Congress. Two good sources for state-specific information on overseas voting can be found at www.overseasvotefoundation.org and at www.fvap.gov.

"Will the Postal Service deliver mail-in ballots that don't have sufficient postage?"

— Marilyn Gildea, Mountain View, Calif.

This is a question that comes up a lot, because absentee ballots often weigh more than an ounce, which means more than a $0.42 stamp is required. Some jurisdictions note this on the envelope, but others don't. The U.S. Postal Service says it will deliver an absentee ballot even if it doesn't have sufficient postage, though the local election office could get stuck with the bill.

"What is being done to ensure that an appropriate amount of voting machines will be placed in voting districts? For the past couple of presidential elections, there were disproportionate voting resources available for African-American communities as opposed to white, middle-class communities across town."

— Valdez Bravo, Portland, Ore.

There have been problems, especially in 2004, with much longer lines in some precincts than in others. The worst problems were in Ohio, where some people had to wait up to 10 hours to vote in the last presidential election. The longest lines tended to be in urban areas and on college campuses. This year in Ohio, election officials are trying to make sure that there's at least one machine for every 175 registered voters and additional machines placed in areas that experienced heavy turnout in the past. There will also be paper ballots available for voters who want to use them. But every state is different. Virginia, for example, only requires a minimum of one machine for every 750 voters.

A lot of it is just a guessing game. Officials never know who's going to show up, or how much the lines will be affected by broken machines, long ballots or confused voters. They're further hampered by the fact that they had to decide how many machines to purchase well before voter registration deadlines this month. So it's very possible you'll see some long lines this year, and that's why so many election officials are encouraging people to vote early if they can.

"What will happen on Nov. 4 if the polls are scheduled to close and there's still people waiting in line to vote. And what if there aren't enough paper ballots available?"

— Barbara Arnold, Boulder, Colo.

Anyone waiting in line at poll-closing time should be allowed to vote. In some instances, when things have gotten out of hand on Election Day — with a lot of broken machines or confusion — parties and candidates have gone to court to have polling hours extended. In those cases, voters have to cast provisional ballots, which are counted later.

As for places running out of paper ballots, that does happen. Some states or counties will allow you to write down your choices on any piece of paper if the regular ballots run out, but others won't. Voters might just have to wait until election officials can deliver more ballots to their precinct. Most jurisdictions have been increasing the number of paper ballots they have on hand to avoid such situations, but with this year's expected high turnout, it could be a problem.

"When is the best time of day for me to vote? I am slightly disabled and would like to avoid a long line."

— Jean Dreifort, Beachwood, Ohio

Generally, polls are busiest first thing in the morning and shortly before closing time, and there's often a spike at lunchtime. So the best time to avoid a long line would be mid-morning or mid-afternoon. It's also possible that your local poll workers will allow you to come to the front of the line instead of waiting.

"My husband is a recent citizen after being a legal resident for many years. He is voting for the first time in a presidential election. When he voted in the primary election, we found out that he was registered incorrectly, with his first and last names switched. They let him vote without any problem, but he wants to make sure there won't be one when he goes to vote on Nov. 4. Where would he go to correct the mistake?"

— Dorothea Naouai, Bloomfield, N.J.

It's a good idea for voters, especially new ones, to make sure their registrations are in order, especially if they have not received a voter card or confirmation in the mail. You can check the status of your registration by calling your local election office or by going online. Thirty-one states allow you to check your registration online, and you can access those sites through canivote.org. You can also find out where your polling place is. This is important, because if you go to the wrong place, your name won't be on the rolls and they might have you cast a provisional ballot, which might not be counted if it's cast in the wrong precinct.

Thomas Pierce contributed to this report.

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