Voter's Guide to Voting

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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.

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Ballot box

Fixing the vote: the first rush of voting laws. The contentious 2000 presidential election, which injected terms like "hanging chad" and "butterfly ballot" into the political vernacular, resulted in a national effort to reform a much-neglected process. The primary issues at the time, explains Jennifer Bowser, a senior fellow at the bipartisan nonprofit National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), hinged more on ballot design, voting technology, voter education, and updating registration. These are what she describes as the "nitty-gritty snoozers" that nobody had really paid attention to and were addressed in laws like the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002 and tasks forces such as the Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by Jimmy Carter and James Baker.

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.

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Graphic shows early voting dates and 2008 voting percentages for key swing states

Why shorten the early-voting period? Staffing a polling station isn't cheap. Some argue that having voting open for extensive periods -- as long as 45 days -- drives up the cost of electioneering by prolonging that last, and increasingly extensive, sprint. The issue has become contentious in Ohio, where voting hours were allegedly shortened in Democratic-dominated counties and lengthened in Republican ones.

If election fraud is minimal, we don't have problems, right? Not quite. A 2012 Pew study concluded that downright poor record-keeping is more the issue:

  • One out of every eight voter registrations is inaccurate or invalid.
  • Nearly 2 million dead people are on voter rolls.
  • About 2.75 people are registered in more than one state.
  • About 12 million records have a wrong address, so voters don't get mailings.
  • 51 million citizens -- a quarter of voters -- aren't registered.

Fixing records is good, but inadvertently disenfranchising legitimate voters isn't. Florida's purge came under close scrutiny after 2,625 citizens erroneously had their voting rights revoked. They were restored after a lawsuit. (The state's campaign unearthed 207 noncitizens.)

Are states cooperating to fix this? Yes. Pew's Election Initiatives director, David Becker notes that eight states are cross-checking records with one another and federal databases.

Will all this end after Election Day? No. Many voter-ID laws are pending or being debated across the country. And some observers warn that a close election could trigger lawsuits arguing that voters were deprived of their right to vote.

Information for this voter's guide comes from Can I Vote, National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Federal Voting Assistance Program, Early Voting, Pro Con, and reports from Pew States, News21, ProPublica, and Reuters. Let us know in comments if you spot an error.

STATES ABSENTEE EARLY VOTING VOTER REGISTRATION DEADLINE ONLINE VOTER REGISTRATION ELECTION DAY REGISTRATION PHOTO ID REQUIRED FELONY RIGHTS SWING STATES ELECTORAL VOTES
ALABAMA Sept. 27 Oct. 18 Oct. 26     2014 limited   9
ALASKA Oct. 12 Oct. 22 Oct. 7           3
ARIZONA Oct. 11 Oct. 11 Oct. 9 Y     limited   11
ARKANSAS Sept. 21 Oct. 22 Oct. 7           6
CALIFORNIA Oct. 8 Oct. 7 Oct. 22 Y     probation ok   55
COLORADO Oct. 15 Oct. 22 Oct. 9 Y     probation ok X 9
CONNECTICUT Oct. 5   Oct. 30 Y     probation ok   7
DELAWARE Sept. 22   Oct. 13       limited   3
FLORIDA Oct. 2 Oct. 27 Oct. 9     Non-strict limited X 29
GEORGIA Sept. 21 Oct. 15 Oct. 9     Strict     16
HAWAII Oct. 17 Oct. 23 Oct. 8     Non-strict parole ok   4
IDAHO Sept. 21 Sept. 21 Oct. 12   Y Non-strict     4
ILLINOIS Sept. 27 Oct. 22 Nov. 3       parole ok   20
INDIANA Sept. 17 Oct. 9 Oct. 9 Y   Strict parole ok   11
IOWA Sept. 27 Sept. 27 Oct. 27   Y   limited X 6
KANSAS Oct. 17 Oct. 17 Oct. 16 Y   Strict     6
KENTUCKY Sept. 17   Oct. 9       limited   8
LOUISIANA Sept. 22 Oct. 23 Oct. 9 Y   Non-strict     8
MAINE Sept. 22   Oct. 9   Y   unrestricted   4
MARYLAND Sept. 21 Oct. 27 Oct. 16 Y         10
MASSACHUSETTS Oct. 16   Oct. 16       parole ok   11
MICHIGAN Sept. 22   Oct. 17     Non-strict parole ok   16
MINNESOTA Sept. 21   Oct. 9   Y       10
MISSISSIPPI Sept. 22   Oct. 6       limited except for presidential election   6
MISSOURI Sept. 25   Oct. 10           10
MONTANA Oct. 9   Oct. 9   Y       3
NEBRASKA Oct. 1 Oct. 1 Oct. 26       limited   5
NEVADA Oct. 17 Oct. 20 Oct. 6 Y     limited X 6
NEW HAMPSHIRE Sept. 22   Oct. 27   Y Non-strict   X 4
NEW JERSEY Sept. 22   Oct. 16           14
NEW MEXICO Oct. 9 Oct. 20 Oct. 9           5
NEW YORK Oct. 2   Oct. 12 Y         29
NORTH CAROLINA Sept. 6 Oct. 18 Nov. 3           15
NORTH DAKOTA Sept. 27 Oct. 22 N/A           3
OHIO Oct. 2 Oct. 2 Oct. 9         X 18
OKLAHOMA Sept. 21 Nov. 2 Oct. 9           7
OREGON Oct. 17   Oct. 16 Y         7
PENNSYLVANIA Oct. 23   Oct. 9     Strict     20
RHODE ISLAND Oct. 9   Oct. 7           4
SOUTH CAROLINA Sept. 22   Oct. 6 Y   Strict pending     9
SOUTH DAKOTA Sept. 21 Sept. 21 Oct. 22           3
TENNESSEE Sept. 22 Oct. 17 Oct. 8     Strict limited   11
TEXAS Sept. 22 Oct. 22 Oct. 9     Strict pending     38
UTAH Oct. 9 Oct. 23 Oct. 22 Y         6
VERMONT Sept. 22 Sept. 22 Oct. 31           3
VIRGINIA Oct. 17   Oct. 15       limited X 13
WASHINGTON Oct. 1   Oct. 29 Y     limited   12
WASHINGTON D.C.   Oct. 22 Oct. 22   Y   parole ok   3
WEST VIRGINIA Sept. 21 Oct. 24 Oct. 16           5
WISCONSIN Sept. 20 Oct. 22 Oct. 17   Y Strict pending   X 10
WYOMING Sept. 27 Sept. 27 Oct. 22   Y   limited   3
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