Here in the D.C. area, I grew up seeing commercials from a local clothing store whose CEO, Sy Syms, always ended every commercial with the company's motto: "an educated consumer is our best customer."
Tomorrow is Election Day in many states across the country, and a national election is now less than a year away. As focus shifts away from the campaigns and issues to the real stars of Election Day - the voters - it seems like a good time to talk about what voters can do to make themselves "educated consumers" and ensure a good experience at the polls:
- Check your registration. This is probably the most important - and most often overlooked - precaution a voter can take before casting a ballot. In every state but North Dakota, presence on a registration list is a prerequisite for voting. In addition, because eligibility is tied not just to identity but residence, making sure that the registration record reflects the voter's most current address is a valuable step before heading to the polls.
- Learn what's on the ballot. Usually, the most visible races - either top-of-the-ticket or "hot" local issues are well-covered in the media; however, other races and issues get little to no attention and thus can be a surprise (or a guessing game) on Election Day. It is easier than ever to get information from a variety of sources about the ballot - even 5-10 minutes with such resources can be incredibly valuable when the time comes to cast a vote.
- Know when to go. Voting hours are not uniform across states - and occasionally within them - so it's worth the 60 seconds it takes to make sure the polling place will be open when you get there. In addition, with the proliferation of alternative polling sites - early voting, vote centers, mail ballot dropboxes - knowing the deadline and planning accordingly can avoid unnecessary stress and headaches on Election Day.
- Know where to go. Redistricting of federal, state and local boundaries can often mean a voter no longer votes at the same old polling place but has moved to a new location. Knowing your destination in advance can make the voting experience far simpler and prevent a multi-stop itinerary to cast a valid ballot.
- Know what (if anything) you need to bring. As identification requirements become more numerous around the nation, it makes sense to know what documentation is needed to vote and what it should contain. In some states, a voter card is all that is necessary; in others, photo identification with specific characteristics (issuer, expiration date, etc.) will be required. Having (and if necessary, getting) such documentation in advance will prevent Election Day from being an frustrating experience.
- Know what to do if something goes wrong. Occasionally, problems do occur at the polls even if a voter has taken the necessary steps to prevent them. When they do occur, voters shouldn't be afraid to ask questions - and just importantly, listen to the answers. For example, in many states casting a provisional ballot is ineffective if the voter is in the wrong polling place. Therefore, voters should make sure they understand what's necessary to cast a valid ballot and insist on speaking to someone who can help them before leaving the polling place or casting anything other than a full ballot.
The good news is that all of this information is available in every state and locality - usually online, but also via direct communication with the appropriate election office.
My experience has always been that the women and men who run elections in this country want voters to have a good experience; voters can do their part by knowing the ropes before heading to the polls.
Or, as Sy Syms might say, an educated consumer is our best voter.