Elections 101

Voting Rights and Voter Suppression: Call your Local Election Official

Created in partnership with Access Democracy

Your local election official is responsible for running your elections. Federal and state law sets many of the parameters, like the requirements for voter registration or the days that citizens can vote, while others are left to local officials to decide. Let your local election office know that you understand they work year-round to ensure well-run elections, and ask them to make decisions that make it easier for all eligible Americans to vote. These calls will help you learn more about the state of play in your community—making you a better advocate. They will also let your local election official know that citizens, like you, are engaged and are supportive of policies that make voting easier.

Remember: The best way to use this guide is to read through all of it, and decide which parts raise the issues most important to ensuring equal access to voting in your state. You don’t have to ask your local election official about every issue below! Fill Out the Survey at AccessDemocracy.us/Indivisible with What You Learned.


Locally, most elections are administered at the county level by an individual or a board. You can look up your local election office here.

The local election office is responsible for the logistics and mechanics of the election within their area, often including determining the location and number of polling places, allocating machine and human resources, and training poll workers.


Make a plan to call or meet with your local election official to ask how he or she is working towards fair, equal, and easy access to the ballot.



Why Is Easy Access to the Ballot Important?

Once a citizen is registered to vote, she still must overcome one final hurdle before being able to exercise her right to vote: she actually has to cast her ballot! For many Americans, the option to vote only on a weekday during business hours doesn’t make sense: work and family responsibilities make getting to the polls very difficult. In fact, according to a report published by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission in 2016, 41% of all the votes cast nationally were cast before Election Day. In its 2014 report, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration applauded the trend towards offering more opportunities for pre-Election Day voting and recommended that more states offer such opportunities. Despite this, 13 states still require a specific excuse to vote absentee and do not have any form of early voting. These states can expand the right to vote by offering early voting and making available to all citizens the option to vote by mail. See what your state offers here.

In addition, election officials should be certain that the locations and times they offer for voting are equally available to communities across the state. This includes flexible voting hours, and polling places that can be easily accessed (including by public transit). Polling place closures and limited voting hours disproportionately affect communities of color. A study by the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that, in the 2016 election, “in states with histories of voting discrimination there were 868 fewer polling places operating on Election Day.”

Administrative decisions on polling locations, hours and staffing have an enormous impact on access to the ballot – particularly for voters of color. Targeted choices to under-resource polling locations in communities of color can prevent communities of color from exercising their right to vote. As the NALEO Education Fund wrote in their report Latino Voters at Risk: Assessing the Impact of Restrictive Voting Changes In Election 2016:

“Election administrators’ discretion to set aggressive registration list maintenance policies, to close or consolidate polling locations, to provide insufficient resources for polling places in underrepresented communities, and to neglect the provision of language assistance throughout the election process has already made it more difficult for many Latinos and underrepresented voters to participate in elections.”

While the NALEO report was focused on Latino communities, similar patterns of habitual under-resourcing of polling places and other voter access issues can also be seen in neighborhoods with large African AmericanNative American, and Asian American and Pacific Islander populations.

How do you determine how many polling places to have on Election Day?

How do you determine where to locate polling places?

Is there a deadline for setting Election Day polling places?
How do you inform voters of the location of their polling place, especially if the location has changed since last year?



Why Is Early Vote Important?

Early vote expands access to voting for working Americans, and for those with childcare or elder-care responsibilities. Early voting is when the state offers in-person voting for a period in advance of Election Day. Thirty-seven states and D.C. offer some form of early voting. While that is an encouraging number, in recent years, states have started to reverse the trend by cutting back on early voting. The Brennan Center reported in February 2016:

“[S]tarting in 2011, several states started restricting early voting. In North Carolina, the legislature slashed seven early voting days, removing times that were especially popular among African Americans. Among these: the Sunday before the election, used by churchgoers for a ‘Souls to the Polls’ drive. In the prior election, more than one-quarter of all African-American voters in the state had voted on those days. In 2012, Florida dramatically reduced early voting. After exceptionally long lines—which disproportionately impacted African Americans and Hispanics—prevented 200,000 from voting and caused a national outcry, the legislature backtracked and reinstated most of the days it had eliminated. Overall, eight states have new laws cutting back on early voting days and hours.”

In many states, the law gives some flexibility to local election officials about where to offer early vote, and the days and hours it will be available. These officials should be encouraged to offer early vote to the fullest extent they are able under the law, including—where the law permits it—early in the morning, later in the evening, and on Saturdays and Sundays. Click here to see if your state offers early vote.

Are you offering early vote to the maximum extent allowed by law – including the full range of days and hours?

How do you determine how many polling places to have during early voting?

How do you determine where to locate early vote polling places?

Is there a deadline for setting early vote polling places?
How do you inform voters of their early vote polling places?



Why Are the Mechanics of Election Administration Important?

Voting Machines

States and localities use a variety of voting machines and may even use different machines within the jurisdiction for different types of voting. Most places use one of three types of machines: Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) Voting Machine, Optical Scan Machines, and Hybrid Machines.

  • DRE machines allow voters to directly record their vote on the machine, usually by touchscreen or pushbutton, and usually have a more flexible interface for voters with disabilities or language concerns. The voting data is stored in the computer’s memory. Some DRE machines also include a Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), which is a paper record of each vote that is stored in the machine.
  • Optical scan machines scan paper ballots that the voter fills in by hand.
  • Hybrid machines allow voters to record their votes on the machine, like DREs. But the machine then prints a paper ballot that is scanned by an optical scanner.

You can learn more about the types of equipment in use in polling places in your state from this resource made available by Verified Voting.

The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s 2014 report cautions of an impending crisis in voting technology. The Commission notes that many of the voting machines in use today were purchased with federal funds in the early 2000s and are past their prime. In fact, according to research by the Brennan Center, some 43 states are using machines that are more than a decade old. Additionally, according to research by the Center for American Progress, 13 states are using machines that do not use paper ballots or produce a VVPAT. The lack of a paper record makes it impossible to conduct a post-election audit to ensure that voting systems are accurately recording and counting votes.

Electronic Poll Books

When a voter arrives at the polling place, the first thing he does is go to the check-in table where a poll worker looks for his name in the poll book. Traditionally, these books were printed lists of all of the voters registered in the particular precinct. Now, more jurisdictions are switching to electronic lists on a tablet or laptop computer. Electronic poll books can enable poll workers to look up voters in the entire county or state, and direct them to the right polling place if they have come to the wrong one. Some even automatically update records on who has voted during an early vote period or at a different voting location. The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s 2014 report recommended using electronic poll books.

There are some downsides, however. Electronic poll books can malfunction and are more susceptible to hacking and cyber threats. For these reasons, many jurisdictions that use electronic poll books still keep printed paper copies of the poll book at polling locations or nearby.

Resource Management: Polling Place Hours, Locations & Staffing

Some of the most important decisions elections officials make are about resource management. These decisions range from how many polling locations to open during early vote, to how many voting machines and poll workers to deploy, to whether there are staff members available to assist voters facing language barriers.

One of the most significant consequences of resource management decisions is their effect on wait times to vote. A review by the Brennan Center of three states with some of the longest lines to vote in 2012 revealed that “precincts with the longest lines had fewer machines, poll workers, or both.” Furthermore, the study showed that “[a]reas with higher percentages of minority voters tended to have fewer machines … and voters in precincts with more minorities experienced longer waits” to vote. Also, “those who waited the longest tended to live in urban areas and were disproportionately African American and Latino.” Long wait times to vote can depress voter turnout. In 2012, long lines at the polls caused more than 200,000 Floridians to leave without casting a ballot.

Where polling locations are placed also has an important impact on who is able to cast a ballot on Election Day and can disproportionately hurt communities of color. A panel convened by the Carter Center revealed that some Native American voters had to drive more than 100 miles to cast a ballot in the 2016 Presidential election. Following the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, states closed 868 polling locations in Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the Carolinas – a decision that directly hurt the ability of those states’ African American and Latino communities to vote.

The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration recommends that jurisdictions use models and tools to assist in resource allocation, such as the calculators developed by the CalTech-MIT Voting Technology Project. These calculators show different line lengths depending on various factors at a polling place, including ballot length and number of poll workers. The use of such calculators may help guard against allocating too few resources to communities of color and urban areas.


Nothing highlights the importance and urgency of better protecting our election infrastructure from cyber threats more than the recent revelations about the extent of Russian hacking during the 2016 election. Russian operatives targeted election systems in 39 states, as well as an election equipment vendor. Outdated voting machines must be updated and their security strengthened by requiring a paper audit trail. Election officials should have plans to protect voter registration databases and electronic poll books from cyberattacks. A poll from the summer of 2017 found that 1 out of 4 voters will consider not voting in the future because of cybersecurity concerns. As jurisdictions take steps to improve their technology, they must keep the safety and security of voter information at the forefront. Failure to do so will only further erode public confidence in our elections.

How do you determine how many voting machines, poll workers, ballots, and other resources to allocate to each polling place?

The 2014 bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration recommended that election officials use a resource allocation calculator, such as the kind developed by the CalTech-MIT Voting Technology Project. Do you use this or a similar tool?

What kind of voting machines does our county/city use?

Is this different from what the rest of the state uses?
Do the machines use a paper ballot or produce a paper receipt of each vote cast?
How old are the machines?
Do you think we need new machines?
When are the voting machines tested?
Who does the testing?
Are the testing and certification meetings open to the public?
Do you have the resources you need to protect our election infrastructure from cyberattacks?

Do you use electronic poll books?

If yes → Great! What is your backup plan in the event that an electronic poll book malfunctions?

If no → Why not? The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s 2014 report recommends using electronic poll books to increase accuracy and efficiency and to give each polling place access to full, real-time county and state voter rolls.

Do you provide ballots and other election information in other languages? If so, what is your process for translating the materials?

Note that the Voting Rights Act requires areas with significant minority-language populations to print voting materials in English and other needed languages. Check here for areas covered by these requirements.

Do you need more poll workers? How can I become a poll worker?

What are the requirements for being a poll worker?
Do you allow high school students to be poll workers?
Can poll workers work half days?



Why Is Easy Access to Voter Registration Important?

The right to vote is a cornerstone of our democracy. Before citizens can exercise this right, they must be registered to vote. When, how, and if a citizen may register to vote is controlled by the states, with a little bit of federal law on top. Some states have taken steps to make it easier for citizens to vote—like online registration and automatic registration. Other states have enacted laws designed to make it harder, or in the case of felon disenfranchisement laws, impossible for certain citizens to vote.

The 2016 election was the first presidential election without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The VRA gave the federal government authority to review any changes to votings laws in certain states. The Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, gutted this provision of the VRA. A 2016 Demos report said:

“In Alabama, North Carolina, Texas, and many other states, this has led to what journalist Ari Berman describes as ‘the most sustained attack [on voting rights] since the passage of the VRA.’ Policymakers in these states are working to limit or repeal policies that encourage and enable participation, such as Early Voting and Same-Day Registration (SDR), while also erecting new policies that unnecessarily limit participation, such as strict photo ID laws.”

These troubling developments highlight the importance of making registration easier, of increasing outreach to voters by election officials, and of your own efforts to register people in your community!

Online Registration

Thirty-six states and D.C. currently allow citizens to register to vote, or update their registration information, online. Click here to see if your state offers online voter registration. To register online, a voter completes an online form, which is transmitted to state or local election officials. In most states, a voter must have a valid state driver’s license or other state-issued ID card to register online (voters without that ID can still register by other means). The election official reviews the information the voter provided and validates it by comparing it to state databases (like the DMV database). If the information does not match or there is another issue with the registration, the voter is notified.

Online registration has many benefits. Many citizens, especially students and younger voters, find it easier to register online. With paper forms, election staff must decipher handwriting and transcribe the information into their database. Since online registration is completed and transmitted electronically, this process significantly reduces errors. Online registration also saves states money. A 2010 report found that Maricopa County, Arizona saved 80 cents every time a voter registered online instead of on paper. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent bipartisan commission charged with developing voting and election guidelines, found that use of online registration has almost tripled over the last several years. In 2014, 6.5% of voters registered online, and by 2016 that number grew to 17.4%. Just like with any technology, it’s common sense to make sure that a state’s online voter registration system is secure and well-functioning. States should ensure that their online voter registration system has safeguards to protect voter data and privacy; can handle a large number of visitors to the website, particularly close to the registration deadline; is accessible to persons with disabilities; and that eligible voters across the state are made aware of the opportunity to register and update their information online.

Automatic Registration

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, commonly known as the “motor voter” law, required states to allow citizens to register at DMVs. Most states initially implemented this law as an “opt in” system—meaning that voters could choose, or “opt in,” to register to vote when updating or renewing their driver’s license. In contrast, automatic voter registration means that when eligible citizens interact with the DMV or other government office that registers voters, they will automatically be registered to vote unless they “opt out” of registration. Automatic voter registration reduces the burden on citizens because when you register, your registration follows you better, without constantly having to submit extra paperwork. It also helps state and local election officials because voters’ addresses are routinely updated, resulting in cleaner voter rolls.

In March 2015, Oregon became the first state to pass legislation to automatically register eligible citizens to vote (unless they opt out). As of December 2017, eight additional states and D.C. have followed suit, and 32 states are considering automatic registration legislation. Click here to see if your state offers automatic voter registration.

Same Day Registration

As of October 2017, 15 states and D.C. allow citizens to register to vote and vote on the same day. Out of those, 13 states and D.C. allow registration and voting on Election Day. Click here to see if your state offers some form of same day registration (SDR). Regardless of the state’s voter ID laws, states that allow SDR require the voter to show proof of residency and identity in order to register on the same day you vote. In most cases, a valid driver’s license or government-issued ID card will suffice.

There is no question that SDR makes it easier for people to vote. This one-stop process results in a longer registration period and helps eligible voters manage last-minute problems or mistakes. According to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures, SDR policies on average increase overall turnout by 5%. And, studies indicate that permitting Election Day registration and voting could increase youth turnout by as much as 14% in presidential election years.

Do you conduct registration drives or register people to vote in locations other than your office?

Do you send your staff to conduct voter registration at local colleges, citizenship ceremonies, or other places where there may be large numbers of unregistered eligible voters?

Can I help my friends and family register to vote? What do I need to know in order to be able to do it correctly?


Remember to Fill Out the Survey at AccessDemocracy.us/Indivisible with What You Learned