Protect your vote

This year’s historic election may come down to two major factors: how many people turn out to the polls, and how many of their votes are counted.

Voter turnout increased more than 120 percent during the presidential primaries and few if any of the pundits predicted it. Over 3.4 million people in Ohio turned out to the polls to make their voices heard. Millions of young people and people of color have been especially energized by the candidates and are registering to vote for the first time.

Yet the primaries also spotlighted questions about whether our country is ready for Nov. 4. There were numerous reports of polling place problems, voting machine malfunctions and complaints of voter registration glitches. Lines were long, voters were not on the rolls, and too many would-be voters simply gave up.

Polls in parts of Ohio, California, and the District of Columbia ran out of paper ballots, in some place as early as noon, according to a Pew Center on the States study. And the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law reported that its nationwide voter protection hotline received over 5,000 complaints during the primaries.

In the 2006 general election, the hotline received 2,334 calls from Ohio, more than any other states. There were reports of vote switching (where they voted for one candidate and another candidate’s name appeared on the confirmation screen), including a voter at a senior center in Franklin County who received two error messages and had the screen flip his vote. A poll worker was uncooperative when he asked for assistance, and finally told him that the machine was broken and they would call him when it was fixed. He never got a call and therefore never voted. It was almost like a repeat of the 2000 and 2004 elections, when horror stories of long lines, inaccessible and understaffed voting places, poorly designed ballots, ill functioning voting machines, and voter intimidation and manipulation in low-income, Latino, and African American communities were widespread.

We cannot allow these voting rights problems to occur again in November 2008 – there’s simply too much at stake. This year, every eligible voter in Ohio must be able to cast a ballot, and have that ballot counted.

A truly historic election day is going to come down to individual voters who must be active proponents of their own right to vote.

That’s why AFL-CIO union activists and constituency groups have joined a nonpartisan coalition of civil rights organizations, faith-based organizations, students, lawyers, and other community allies in Ohio to tackle voting problems in our community and reach out to citizens about their voting rights.

Here are six simple steps that everyone in Ohio can take to make sure their ballot counts:

First, call your local elections office before Election Day to verify the location of your polling place.

Second, bring some form of identification to the polls, preferably a government-issued photo ID.

Third, ask for help from poll workers and check posted information signs if you have questions or need assistance at the polls.

Fourth, if you are in line at the polling place when the polls close, do not leave. You’re still entitled to vote.

Fifth, if you are offered a provisional ballot, ask if you can cast a regular ballot instead by providing additional ID or by going to another polling place. If there are no other options, cast the provisional ballot.

Sixth, if you have a voting rights problem, ask to speak to an election official or to a voting rights volunteer, or call the toll-free voting rights hotline 1-866-OUR-VOTE, operated by a nonpartisan coalition of groups, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and the AFL-CIO.

This November’s election will mark the moment that America begins to build a future for all, or one in which we finally give up on the American Dream. Every Ohioan ought to stand up and weigh in on the direction our country should be headed. Voting is our most precious right and responsibility as Americans, and this year, we must make sure our votes will count.

Richard Trumka is secretary treasurer of the 10 million-member American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations.