Voters at long last can file their choice in the presidential election. Indiana and Kentucky are the first states to open up absentee-ballot voting.
For people who have yet to register, those deadlines too are fast approaching: Mississippi and South Carolina citizens must fill out their forms by Oct. 6.
Getting to that polling station, though, might be more complicated. Thirty-one states have voter registration laws. Of those, five have passed so-called strict voter-ID requirements. Proving you're you at the ballot box has become the subject of bureaucratic upheavals, political blustering, and lawsuits aplenty. And yet, hidden in the fiery rhetoric is good news of electoral cooperation and statistics that demonstrate American integrity in the voting booth. Below, some election facts and a voter's chart.
Proving you're you. A small HAVA provision outlined the proof needed at the ballot box if a voter registered for the first time by mail and didn't include proof of identity. Taking a cue from there, states asked for documents like driver's licenses, utility bills, and gun permits. Five states have what NCSL describes as "strict" photo-ID laws: A person who fails to provide an acceptable ID must follow up with proof. Nonstrict laws allow election officials to cross-check your signature on file or voters to sign an affidavit swearing their identity -- no further steps are required after the ballot is cast.
What voter fraud exists, and how rampant is it? Fraud can be intentional or inadvertent, anything from on-site intimidation, poll workers' intentionally swapping absentee ballots for an altered batch, or a wife signing the sealed envelope of her husband's ballot because he left the signature line blank. But we Americans can take some measure of pride in a clean -- if occasionally inept -- process: In the News21 Who Can Vote study, the Carnegie-Knight student-journalism project tallied just 2,068 election-fraud cases since 2000, and only 10 cases involved in-person voter impersonation. With 146 million registered voters, that's 1 out of 15 million -- the same odds as winning the lottery. The group also reviewed the Republican National Lawyers Association's list of 375 election-fraud cases: None included voter impersonation.
How did voter ID get big? Voter ID wasn't really a big issue, Bowser of NCSL tells Yahoo!, until Georgia and Indiana passed strict photo-ID requirements starting in 2005. The movement swelled after the 2010 mid-term elections, when 20 state legislatures tilted Republican. Since then, five states passed "strict" voter ID laws, and 19 states toughened identity requirements and shortened the early-voting period.
Who can't provide a photo ID these days? Often, IDs require documents like a birth certificate. Acquiring one could be burdensome for the elderly, immigrants, students (who are on the move and without their records), the homeless, indigents, and people who don't interact with the government by choice or due to accessibility issues. Studies estimate that up to 11% of the population may be in that category. In Pennsylvania, where a new voter-ID law is being batted between the lower and higher courts, more than 9% of voters don't have a state-issued ID; those numbers go up to nearly 18% in Philadelphia. Does voter ID really benefit Republicans and disenfranchise Democrats? Hard to say. Bowser suspects the debate itself is the political rallying cry. With one side denouncing fraud and the other decrying suppression, the specter of injustice might be enough to motivate the party base. What critics fear is that confused voters may decide their democratic rights aren't worth the bureaucratic hassles and stay away.