The election process is one of the hallmarks of our country works. It's how you choose who will make important decisions about your health, safety, and financial condition, just to name a few things. And the decision impacts everyone in your family and community, and perhaps people across the US.
The important part of the election process is your right to vote. You may not realize it, but there's more to that right than pulling a lever or punching a chad.
Where Does it Come from?
You may have heard or even said it yourself: "It's my constitutional right to vote." Well, not exactly. Unlike the right to free speech and other rights, nowhere in the a US Constitution does it say outright that any of us has a right to vote. It does say that members of the US House of Representatives and Senate are elected by the People. And it says a person can't be denied the right to vote because of her age, race, or sex. But that's about as far as it goes.
For the most part, the right to vote comes from hints in the US Constitution: It basically assumes the right exists. Also, federal laws, like the Voting Rights Act, and state laws protect the right. In fact, state laws largely control the right to vote. Each state has its own rules on matters like who can vote, and when and how. And each state's laws are different.
However, there are some general rules that run throughout, such as:
Restrictions on who may vote. Federal and state laws place various restrictions on who can and can't vote:
- The Voting Rights Act makes 18 years old the voting age in federal elections, but states may let its citizens vote in state and local elections below that age
- Most states restrict voting rights for those convicted of crimes, and particularly felony crimes, like murder. State laws vary a great deal
In some states, like Washington, felons can't vote while they're still in prison. In states like Ohio, a convicted felon may vote as soon as he's released from jail. In other states, convicted felons lose the right to vote forever.
Privacy and secrecy. Practically every state has laws protecting voter privacy and secrecy of ballots. The idea is over 1,000 years old and comes from times when threats and violence were how votes were gained. However, with the increased use of voting machines, early- and absentee-voting, and absentee ballots, many have questioned the states' abilities to protect voter privacy and secrecy, as well as the accuracy ballot counts.
It's your vote. In states like Ohio and others, it's illegal for your employer to try to influence how or for whom you vote. Likewise, under the Voting Rights Act, it's illegal for anyone to bully you or use force or threats of force to influence your vote. Unfortunately, voter intimidation makes the news quite often.
Here are some things you can do to make sure your voice is heard this coming election:
- Register to vote. You can't vote without registering
- Find out where you vote. It may be down the street or a few miles away. If you can't find transportation to the polling place, call your local election board and ask about transportation, or consider early- or absentee-voting. Usually, you'll receive a sample ballot with information about your voting location
- Bring your identification. You may need a driver's license, photo ID, or something else. Find out what you need before you get to the polling station
- Contact a poll worker immediately if you notice a problem at the polling station, such as a malfunctioning voting machine; ballots lying about in open for anyone to see; poll workers or other voters trying to see how you're voting, etc. Even protestors or politicking within a certain area around the voting area could be a cause for invalid votes at your location. Check your state for restrictions
- Call the police immediately if someone outside or inside the polling station makes you feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, or if he threatens or intimidates you
Take part and exercise your right to vote, and be sure to respect the rights of other voters, too. Elections are important to us all, and we all deserve the chance to participate.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I recently moved here from another state. Can I register here, or do I need an absentee ballot from my old state?
- I wasn't able to vote because I didn't notice my driver's license had expired? Were my voting rights violated?
- Is it legal for members of one political party to count and check-off the names on a list of registered voters?