Election 2012: Understanding your voting rights

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, July 8, 2012

(ARA) – Federal, state and local elections in 2012 are shaping up to make this one of the most anticipated election seasons in U.S. history. In addition to voting for the president of the United States, 33 of 100 U.S. senate seats will be up for election, as well as 435 U.S. Congressional seats and the governorships for 13 states and territories.

As the country draws closer to Election Day (Tuesday, Nov. 6), many Americans wonder if they’ll be eligible to vote. In a number of states across the country, state legislatures are changing election laws in regard to who can vote in their state, and the requirements to register to vote. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states have considered new laws involving photo identification for voting.

Proponents of such laws, say requirements to show a photo I.D. at the time you vote will prevent voter fraud, according to research by FindLaw.com, the nation’s leading website for free legal information. Opponents say photo I.D. voter laws will prevent and discourage Americans who may have difficulty in obtaining a photo I.D. from voting.

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Other concerns with this coming national election involve the eligibility of college students to vote if they’re living away from home and the growing number of Americans who are choosing to vote with absentee ballots.

If you’re wondering what your voting rights are on Election Day 2012, consider these tips from FindLaw.com, the nation’s leading website for free legal information:

First time voter. If you are voting for the first time in a federal election, you need to register to vote. Each state has its own voter registration process and deadlines for voting. You can register to vote by going online to rockthevote.com, a website geared to helping young voters understand their voting rights, or by visiting a local county, state or federal office in your area. Federal election laws require that you show proof of identification such as valid photo identification (driver’s license, U.S. passport) or a utility bill, government check or government document with your name and current address to register.

Voter registration. Each state has its own process and deadlines for voter registration. In some states, such as Minnesota, you can register and vote on Election Day. Other states require that you register from 15 to 30 days before Election Day. To register, check the rules in the state you reside. Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Clark County, Nev., allow you to fully register to vote online.

College students. If you’re attending college in a city or state away from your hometown, you have the right to choose where you want to vote. If you still want to have a say in the local elections in your hometown, you should contact the city hall in your hometown to request an absentee ballot. But, if you want to vote in the local and state elections where your college campus is located, then you’ll need look into registration in your college town. That’s where things get tricky. Voting laws can be confusing and restrictive in some states that don’t want to encourage college students from other states from voting in their local and state elections. To learn more about voter eligibility, visit the Brennan Center for Justice at www.brennancenter.org/studentvoting.

Language Barriers. The United States Election Assistance Commission offers a voter’s guide to federal elections in 10 languages, including Cherokee, Chinese, Dakota, Japanese, Korean, Navajo, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese, in addition to English.

Absentee voting. The Federal Voting Assistance Program provides information for U.S. citizens living abroad, as well as military personnel stationed abroad, on how to vote in an upcoming election. You can vote absentee in local, state and federal elections if you are a U.S. citizen 18 years or older and are an active duty member of the Armed Forces, Merchant Marine, Public Health Service, NOAA, a family member of the above, or a U.S. citizen residing outside the United States.

No excuse and early voting. In a growing number of states, you don’t have to wait until Election Day to cast your ballot for the next president of the United States. For years, many states required you to give an excuse such as “having surgery” or “out of town for business” to get an absentee ballot. Today, 27 states offer absentee ballots without an excuse, which can be returned in person or by mail, and 32 states now offer in-person early voting (an average of 22 days prior to Election Day). Two states, Oregon and Washington, offer a voting system completed entirely by mail.

Felony. If you’ve been convicted of a felony and have served your time, check with the state in which you live to see if you’re eligible to vote. States vary on this – some allow you to vote immediately upon release from prison, even if you’re still on probation; others don’t.

Public assistance. Many Americans live on the edges of society and believe that they don’t have the right to vote because they’re homeless, living in a shelter for abused women, or because they’re accepting welfare. If you meet the eligibility requirements to vote in your state, you can vote, regardless of how many bumps in the road life has put in your way. To learn more about your voting rights, visit www.FindLaw.com.