U.S. Midterm Elections First Test of New Voting Guidelines

By Michelle Austein
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – When millions of Americans head to the polls November 7 to cast their votes for federal and local leaders, they will be doing so under new guidelines intended to address voting irregularities identified in 2000.

During the 2006 midterm elections, Americans will elect all 435 members of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate's 100 members. Thirty-six states will elect governors. The outcome will affect which party controls Congress and how future laws are developed. (See related article.)

The election also marks the first implementation of voluntary national guidelines approved in 2002 and designed to correct problems encountered in the 2000 election.

Many states also will ask voters to weigh in on a variety of issues, by voting on ballot measures, including how their taxes are spent or what rights their state constitutions guarantee. (See related article.)

Although Election Day is not a national holiday in the United States, nine states have declared it a state holiday. Across the nation, many public and private employers allow employees to take time off from work to cast their ballots.

Many states close schools because the schools serve as polling places. Town halls, places of worship, community centers and shopping centers are among the thousands of public and private facilities designated as polling places.

From the moment the first polls open – as early as 6 a.m. in some East Coast states – until the last polls close at 8 p.m. in Alaska (12 a.m. Eastern Standard Time), many polling sites will be full of activity.

Trained volunteers will help sign in voters and review procedures. (See related article.)

Teenagers will assist at some precincts, gaining the opportunity to see the democratic process in action even before they are old enough to vote. (See related article.)

Volunteers will help implement many new guidelines established by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA.) Congress passed HAVA in 2002 to address voting problems encountered in the 2000 presidential election. Many of its voluntary guidelines to eliminate voting problems will go into effect for the first time this election.

According to the Election Assistance Commission one-third of voters will cast ballots on new voting machines in 2006. For the first time, every polling place should be equipped with machines to allow people with disabilities to vote privately and independently. Six states will allow voters with disabilities to vote by phone using voice prompts. (See related article.)

Also on hand at some polling places will be election monitors and observers. The Justice Department will send hundreds of employees to more than 65 cities and counties in approximately 20 states to monitor the elections. The department, which is responsible for protecting voters' rights and preventing voter fraud, also has set up a Web site and toll-free phone number for citizens to file complaints.

Candidates and their supporters will be outside polling sites passing out literature and answering questions, trying to sway undecided voters. Laws require these people to stay a certain distance away from polling places to ensure voters' privacy. (See related article.)

Both partisan and nonpartisan organizations, which have spent months running Get Out the Vote campaigns, will be busy throughout Election Day reminding their members to vote. Some groups will make phone calls and send e-mails up until the last minute encouraging members to vote. Other groups will help the disabled or elderly by driving them to the polls. (See related article.)

Voting is not mandatory in the United States, and voter turnout generally is lower in midterms than in presidential elections. About 40 percent of all eligible voters cast ballots in the 2002 midterm elections, according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington.

But many experts think the number of voters could be higher this election because of the increase of states allowing early voting. Early voting allows voters to cast their ballots at designated polling places anytime during a certain number of days before the election. Additionally, more states are allowing voters to vote by mail, dropping the traditional requirement that absentee ballots be allowed only when voters are unable to travel to the polls on Election Day. In Oregon, all voters receive their ballots by mail and can mail them back or deposit them at designated places.

Most mainstream Internet and television news outlets will wait until official results come in as the polls close to project winners. Winners in races where enough votes are counted to indicate a clear win will be announced soon after the polls close.

It might take hours or even days after the polls have closed to determine the winner in closer races. Because most states accept absentee ballots postmarked on or before Election Day, it could take several days for these ballots to be counted. There is also the potential for recounts in extremely close races, as required by some states' laws.

For more information, see 2006 Midterm Elections.