Voting experts from MIT and the California Institute of Technology say that American voters can take seven crucial steps to ensure that their votes are counted in the November 2 presidential election. The researchers have come up with the seven steps after studying U.S. elections for four years.
By following the steps, voters may help prevent the problems that arose in the 2000 presidential election, when as many as three million votes were lost due to voter registration mix-ups, two million additional votes perhaps were lost due to faulty voting equipment and confusing ballots, and another one million were likely lost as the result of polling-place problems.
The announcement is made as part of the ongoing Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project, which was initiated in December 2000 by MIT president Charles M. Vest and Caltech president David Baltimore following the election fiasco the previous month. The group, composed of both political scientists and engineers, is charged with the tasks of evaluating the current state of reliability and uniformity of U.S. voting systems, establishing uniform attributes and quantitative guidelines for performance and reliability of voting systems, and proposing specific uniform guidelines and requirements for reliable voting systems.
The seven steps are as follows:
1. Make sure you are registered. If you have an Internet connection, try Googling a couple of key terms like "voter registration" and the name of your county to see if your local election office is on-line. If you don't have the Internet or if nothing comes up on the search, call your local election office to make sure you are registered, that you are on your precinct's list of registered voters, and whether you need to bring a form of identification with you in order to vote. If you have any doubt, you should call as soon as possible. The telephone number for your local election office is available from directory assistance.
2. Get a sample ballot from your local elections office, if one hasn't been mailed to you, and read it carefully. If you have received a sample ballot in the mail, this is a good time to make sure that your name and address are correct, and that you know the location of your polling place. For additional information on the elections in your area, you can also go online at http://www.vote.caltech.edu or http://web.mit.edu/gsc/www/initiatives/election_US/.
3. Bring your sample ballot to help you in the voting booth. Your sample ballot contains a wealth of information, and also provides a convenient way to keep up with your registration information as well as your choices on local initiatives that are complicated or require some study. You can mark your choices in your sample ballot and use it for reference when you cast your ballot.
4. Try to vote between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., or allow extra time for long lines. The times before work, during the lunch hour, and after work are especially busy, so if you can avoid voting at these times, you should try to do so. If you cannot vote on November 2, you should examine your sample ballot or ask at the local election office if you can take advantage of "early voting" opportunities where you live.
5. Know your rights and ask for help if you need it. You can obtain information beforehand from your local election office or the web sites http://www.vote.caltech.edu or http://web.mit.edu/gsc/www/initiatives/election_US/, but don't be afraid to ask the officials at the polling site if you need help.
6. You have a right to vote if you are registered in your precinct, even if your name does not appear on the list of registered voters in your precinct. Rules vary across the nation, so ask the poll workers in your precinct what you can do if your name does not appear on the list of registered voters. Casting a vote when your name mistakenly does not appear on the list is often called "provisional" or "fail-safe" voting. In some parts of the country, if you cast a provisional ballot in the wrong precinct, your votes may not get counted, so be certain you vote in the precinct you are registered in.
7. Stop and double-check that your ballot reflects how you want to vote before you turn in your ballot. Common problems include unintentionally voting for more than one candidate for an office, accidentally not voting for a candidate or a measure, forgetting to vote both the front and back of a two-sided ballot, accidentally turning over an extra page in a multi-page ballot, accidentally voting for the wrong candidate, making a mistake in the "write-in" section, and accidentally entering both the vote for a candidate and entering his or her name in the write-in section. If you make a mistake, ask a poll worker for a new ballot.
English and Spanish versions of the "Seven Steps" guide can be downloaded at http://www.vote.caltech.edu.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 29, 2004 (download PDF).