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What to Do If You Get Turned Away at the Polls

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Voting in 2020 has posed unprecedented challenges—and so far, we’ve only made it through the primaries. It’s bad enough that the presidential election is just weeks away and the global pandemic is still in full swing, making voting in person a fraught prospect. Couple that with a president doing his best to cast doubt on the security of voting by mail and indications that plenty of voter suppression tactics are in play, it’s more important than ever to take proactive steps to make sure that your vote counts.

Though much of the voting for the November election is expected to place via mail-in ballot, it still is possible to vote in person. And with several states instituting stricter voter ID laws since the 2016 presidential election, even if you’re registered to vote (a fact that you should really double-check) you might find yourself turned away at the polls come November 3 for a variety of reasons.

If this does happen, all is not lost, because you still have recourse—and not having an accepted form of ID is no reason not to head to the polls. Here’s what to know before you vote.

Know your voter ID requirements

Requirements vary by state, so make sure you look yours up before you head out to vote. Currently, 35 states request or require voter identification to vote in the upcoming election, so odds are your state is one of them. But also keep in mind that some poll workers are not properly trained, and may demand more ID than is legally required. In that case, you may need to call an election protection hotline (more on that below) or sign an affidavit.

It also helps to know which states have stricter voter ID policies than others, as some make it more difficult to vote without identification. Check this chart to find out which category your state falls into. It also provides information on which states require a photo ID or simply another form of identification without your picture on it.

Know the other possible reasons you may be turned away

Not having the required identification is one reason why someone may be turned away at the polls, but the list doesn’t end there. According to FindLaw, these can also include:

  • Your name has been removed from the voter roll in your area.
  • The voter records show that you requested an absentee ballot but you are not casting an absentee ballot.
  • Your voter registration card is inaccurate or contains outdated information.
  • Your name is misspelled on the voter registration roll.
  • In a primary, your party may not have been listed correctly.
  • Your eligibility to vote has been challenged. (Learn more about who can challenge a voter’s eligibility on the National Association of Secretaries of State’s website.)

And thanks to COVID-19, many states have updated their voting policies, including registration dates. This is something that varies from state-to-state—including whether or not you can register to vote in-person on the day of the election. Check out our 2020 guide to voting to learn about the rules in your state.

Cast a provisional ballot

If you do not have an accepted form of voter ID—or if you believe you are registered to vote but poll workers can’t find you on the registered voter rolls—you can cast a provisional ballot or sign an affidavit affirming your identity. This is your right under Section 302 of the Help America Vote Act.

“People don’t know that there are exceptions if they don’t have an ID,” Sarah Jackel, general counsel for Vote.org tells Lifehacker. “They should insist on casting a provisional ballot.”

In some states this applies to people who simply forget their ID at home on the day of the election. “If you fail to show up to the polls with the ID you can request a provisional ballot and come back with your ID later,” says Jackel. If it’s the same day, you can go back to your polling location; if it’s later than that, you need to bring the ID your local election official’s office, which you can find by Googling your area code along with “election official.” Often it will be your county clerk.

You can also cast a provisional ballot if you show up on election day to find your name has been removed from the voting rolls or that you’re not properly registered (especially important in states like Ohio).

In all cases, if you have to cast a provisional ballot, be sure to ask for a receipt if you are not given one. This will make it much easier to follow-up with your local election official to ensure your vote was counted, and ask for their reasoning for not letting you vote.

Call an election hotline

If the poll workers still will not let you vote or you sense something is off, you can call an election protection hotline—either the national number or one in your state.

You can also call your local election official or the Secretary of State, though you’re more likely to get a timely response from an election protection hotline on election day. “I would call election protection hotlines first because you’re more likely to find someone who will be an advocate for you,” Jackel says.

Help others (without being political)

If you see another person being turned away at the polls, Jackel says it’s usually OK to let them know that they can cast a provisional ballot. While you’re not allowed to advocate for a candidate within 100 feet of a polling location, “as long as it’s not politically motivated and you’re just trying to help someone, I don’t see why there’d be an issue,” she says. Just “be subtle and thoughtful about it.”

If you think discriminatory practices are taking place at your polling location, call the aforementioned election protection hotline right away, along with the Secretary of State’s office and your local election official. Overall, just make sure you “know the rules and your rights,” says Jackel. Whatever you do, don’t leave your polling location until you’ve cast a ballot.

This post was originally published in October 2018 by Alicia Adamczyk and updated in September 2020 by Elizabeth Yuko to reflect changes in voting policies and information on the current political situation.

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Bobsweep PetHair Plus Robot Vacuum & Mop (Cobalt) | $200 | Best Buy

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