Sunday, November 05, 2006

Don't be stopped from making vote count

Voters should know their rights when they cast their ballots on Tuesday.
In the next few days, candidates across the political spectrum will be working overtime to bring their supporters to the polls on Nov. 7. Sadly, there's a flip side to the contest to maximize turnout: There will also be efforts -- less publicized, but intensely political -- to prevent certain people from voting.

"Voter suppression" is a conscious strategy practiced by those who want to see particular groups -- such as working families and people of color -- silenced on Election Day.

Sometimes, voter lists are improperly purged. In other cases, voters are unfairly challenged. This year, one Republican candidate for Congress in California went so far as to send families of Hispanic origin a letter threatening that they could be arrested if they tried to vote.

Such tactics have no place in our democracy -- and there's no reason to let anyone deny you your right to vote. There are many ways to ensure that you exercise your fundamental right to cast a ballot for the candidates of your choice on Election Day.

A new federal law, the Help America Vote Act of 2004, guarantees a provisional ballot to voters whose names do not appear on the registration rolls. So even if an election worker claims that you are not eligible to vote, you have the right to cast a ballot. If it is later determined that you are eligible, your vote will be counted.

In Michigan, you are not required to provide identification to vote, unless you are a first-time voter who registered by mail and did not provide verification of your identity when you registered. In that case, numerous forms of photo or non-photo ID are acceptable, including a driver's license, a student ID or even a recent utility bill.

Your voting rights include:

The right to vote free from harassment. No one can harass or intimidate you while you are voting. For example, there is no reason for anyone to ask you about child support, debts or any other matter in a polling place.

The election officials at your polling station are obligated to protect you from harassment. If there's a problem, voters can call a nationwide Election Protection Lawyer Hotline, (866) OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683), to report harassment and other election abuses.

Sample ballot or endorsement card. You have the right to carry voting materials into the polling booth.

Right to vote when polls close. If you are in line when the polls officially close, you have the right to vote.

Right to take your time. Don't be rushed by others in line or poll workers.

Right to correct mistakes. If you think you've made a mistake before casting a ballot on paper or on an electronic touch-screen machine, you can ask for help and a new ballot.

Right to assistance. A disability or the inability to read or write does not prevent an American from voting. You may have a person of your choosing -- in Michigan, not an employer or union agent -- help you cast a ballot. You also have the right to see a sample ballot and be instructed on the voting process.

Election Day is our day to speak up as citizens and have a voice in the decisions that affect our lives. From city councils to school boards, from nonpartisan judgeships to highly partisan races for senator, governor and the U.S. Congress, a number of hard-fought races will be decided Tuesday all across Michigan. Every vote counts -- and every vote must be counted.

Rights, it has been said, are like muscles: They work best when exercised. Don't let anyone kick sand on your right to participate in the democratic process.

Ron Gettelfinger is president of the United Auto Workers.

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