Although it’s one of the most central rights of being an American citizen, voting in the United States is not always the easiest nor the smoothest process. That’s primarily because our voting system is incredibly complex—maintained by various local departments in each state and involving aging machinery and a ton of paperwork being manually shuffled around. Suffice to say there’s a lot of room for error. And to make matters even worse, voter suppression is a serious, ongoing issue in this country, usually facilitated through confusing and restrictive state voting laws—many of which disproportionately affect minorities. And those laws have only gotten stricter since 2013, when the Supreme Court scrapped parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
That means that even if you have the legal right to vote on Election Day and do everything you’re supposed to do to ensure smooth sailing at the polls, you could still get turned away.
But don’t panic. We spoke with a spokesperson from HeadCount (a nonpartisan organization that helps register voters) and counsel from the Fair Elections Center (a nonpartisan voting rights organization staffed by attorneys and advocates) to figure out everything that could go wrong at the polls.
Here’s exactly what to do if officials won’t let you vote on Election Day.
Figure out exactly why they won’t let you vote.
Ask the poll workers for a specific explanation of what’s going on and why they won’t let you cast your ballot.
Is there a problem with your voter ID?
Look up your state’s voter ID laws (the Fair Elections Center has a helpful state-by-state guide). Make sure the officials are asking you for the correct forms of ID. If you don’t have any of the proper forms of ID with you, go home, get what you need, and come back to the polling place with the ID you need. If you don’t own any of the proper forms of ID at all, you can request what’s called a provisional ballot (see below). If officials are asking you for a form of ID that your state doesn’t require—or if you’re just confused and need help—you can call the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) to get help and report any issues.
Is your name not on the voter roll?
That’s the list of registered voters for your district. There are several reasons why they might not see your name there, but here are the primary ones:
- You never registered to vote. (If this is the case, you’re out of luck unless your state offers same-day registration.)
- You registered to vote but filled out a form incorrectly. (If this is the case, you can fill out a provisional ballot. See below.)
- You registered to vote correctly, but there was an administrative error while it was being processed. (You can also fill out a provisional ballot. See below.)
- You’re at the wrong polling place.
First thing’s first: “Ask the poll worker to check any supplemental, inactive, or back-up lists,” Michelle E. Kanter Cohen, counsel with the Fair Elections Center, told HelloGiggles. Poll workers aren’t always well trained, so be proactive and ask questions if they seem to miss something or aren’t offering you information you need or options you have available.
If they still can’t find you, go online and check your registration status. You can easily look this up online here, here, or here. These resources may get swamped on Election Day, so be patient or switch to a different website. If nothing’s going through, you can also call your local Board of Elections (you can find the number here) and talk to someone on the phone who can look up your registration status for you.
If these lookup tools indicate that you’re not registered to vote, you can still cast a provisional ballot (see below) just in case something went wrong while your registration form was being processed. “Maybe a form came in, and it just didn’t make it to the rolls for whatever reason,” Aaron Ghitelman, HeadCount’s director of communications, told HelloGiggles. “But when they investigate it after you fill out a provisional ballot, they will realize that, ‘Oh, this person submitted it, and we will count this vote.’”
Additionally, 14 states and the District of Columbia offer same-day registration—meaning you can register right there at the polling place and then place your vote without issue. These are the states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
If you’re indeed registered, check your polling place—make sure you’re at the right one. Check it out here, here, or here. There’s one specific polling place where you’re allowed to vote, so if you’re at the wrong one, they won’t let you cast a ballot. You’ll have to move to the correct polling place.
If you’ve checked your registration status and polling place online and you know you’re registered and in the right place, you can request a provisional ballot.
Request and submit a provisional ballot.
“No eligible voter should be turned away at the polling place,” Cohen said. “Sometimes if a person is in the right place but isn’t on the registered voter list, they don’t have the ID required in the state, or if there is another question about whether they are registered or eligible, they may have to vote what’s called a ‘provisional’ ballot, which is a back-up or ‘fail-safe’ ballot.”
Nearly every state has an established provisional voting process, which allows you to cast a back-up ballot that will only be counted after the appropriate officials investigate questions related to your eligibility. They’ll look into whether you’ve registered, find any lingering forms that may have gotten lost or misread, and see if you are in fact properly registered and eligible. When you ask for your provisional ballot, be firm: “Give me a provisional ballot, as required by law.”
Each state may have slightly different laws about what’s contained on a provisional ballot, but essentially it will look almost exactly like the real ballot. You’ll mark down who you’re voting for and your responses to any ballot measures as usual, and then you’ll return it to the poll worker who will give you further instructions. Make sure to request a receipt and explicit, written instructions about how to follow up about whether your vote has been counted. They should send a note to your address either way to confirm what happened. “Each state has their own length of time to do an investigation to prove the identity,” Ghitelman said. “In Hawaii, it’s 20 days. In Georgia, they have three days to prove.”
One last word of caution: “Make sure you are in the right polling place—in 27 states, a provisional ballot will not be counted if it was cast in the wrong polling place,” Cohen said.
Don’t forget to follow up.
You can call your local Board of Elections the following day to learn whether your provisional vote was counted or at least where it is in the process. This is also a good opportunity to ask what exactly went wrong with your registration form; gather all the information you can.
If you have any issues with requesting, submitting, or following up with your provisional ballot, you can call the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) to get help and report any issues.
When you shouldn’t cast a provisional ballot…
“If you’re not a citizen, you’re not able to vote in federal elections,” Ghitelman said. “I would definitely not advise a non-citizen to fill out a provisional ballot. That would qualify as voter fraud, and that would put them at risk. Not only does that corrupt the voter system, but it puts them at risk for, depending on the laws, possibly a felony.”
Here are some other issues that may arise:
“Some states have rules about whether you can wear material that supports or opposes a candidate when you go to vote,” Cohen said, so best to avoid rocking any kind of political T-shirts or campaign gear to the polls.
Also, beware of taking photos. Ghitelman warned that some states have laws against photographing your ballot. Take your “I voted!” selfie outside the polling location to be safe.
Finally, if anybody—especially poll workers or other election officials—are being aggressive with you or making you feel uncomfortable while you’re trying to vote, it may be considered voter intimidation.
“Voter intimidation is illegal under federal law and many states’ laws,” Cohen explained. “You have the right to cast a ballot free from discrimination and intimidation. Voter intimidation is uncommon. Some examples of voter intimidation include providing false or misleading information about voter requirements, aggressive questioning related to citizenship or criminal records if intended to interfere with voters’ rights, or abusive language. Report problems to Election Protection.”
When in doubt, call this number.
Election Protection is a nonpartisan group that will record any voting irregularities and violations you may encounter, and they’ll guide you through what to do to get your vote counted if you’re eligible.
English: 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683)
Spanish: 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888-839-8682)
Arabic: 844-YALLA-US (844-925-5287)
Good luck out there, voters.