Several years ago, the University of the Pacific, in Stockton, California assembled researchers from different departments to look into the business of voting in depth. After four years of work, we learned many things and published a lot of related work. But perhaps the most important thing we learned was simply this: voters must become much savvier about voting. If you plan to vote today or in the future (and I hope you do), then you must take care that you are not denied your ballot and voting rights by needless errors.
One thing our study produced was a list of 25 tips for the savvy voter (it appeared in a book that you can see here at Amazon). But if we were to boil it down to five things voters ought to take to heart, they’d be the following:
1. Take action before the election. Keep your registration current, particularly when you change addresses, and nag family and friends about doing the same. And make sure of the sample ballot and other mailings that should remind you of Election Day.
2. Don’t go into the polling place empty-handed. Marking a sample ballot and taking it into a polling booth is perfectly legal. So is taking in voting guides prepared by the media or other organizations.
3. Consider voting by mail. The term “absentee” ballot has left the impression that voting by mail is reserved for those who will be out of area for an election. Not so! Voting by mail is available to any voter. It is convenient; it saves time and gas; and it gives you leisure to consider your electoral choices. The Post Office works closely with the Registrar of Voters to ensure that ballots are delivered and returned on time. A voter can also turn in a ballot personally at any polling station on Election Day. One big thing never to forget: Sign the vote-by-mail ballot envelope, but don’t sign the ballot itself. Signed ballots are discarded.
4. If you mess up, get a new ballot. Many voting errors occur in the filling of the ovals on paper ballots. Follow instructions, fill in ovals completely without straying beyond the lines, and use a black pen if asked so the scanners can read the ballot accurately. Extraneous markings or doodles will spoil the ballot. If you make a mistake, ask for a new ballot from a poll worker or, in the case of a vote by mail ballot, from the Office of the Registrar of Voters. Do not try to correct a ballot; this will lead to disqualification.
5. After voting, speak up. Voting is controlled by officials at the local level. You should make your voice heard if you have concerns about informational mailings, poll workers, ballot design, or any other aspects of the voting process. The Office of the Registrar of Voters should receive such complaints. In California, registrars also report to county Boards of Supervisors—who also are a good place for voter comments.
Too often the mechanics of voting are seen as having been delegated to high-tech machines or to devious politicians. As a result, the “solutions” offered to voting problems are better machines or more honest politicians, more engineering and better ethics.
But the system of recording and counting votes continues to be human process in which well-meaning governmental officials work with observant citizens to improve accuracy. In your neighborhood, staying in close touch with the Registrar of Voters and learning the rules regulating the voting process well could improve the accuracy of voting more than yet another machine innovation or change in political personnel. After all, our electoral system is, at base, a social one. Use it well!