By Chris Levister
Historic election puts new focus on voting rights
With less than two weeks before the historic presidential election Gwendolyn Fields is a nervous wreak. It's past midnight and the San Bernardino nurse is circulating e-mail chains warning friends and relatives not to wear Obama T-shirts to the polls November 4.
"African-Americans in particular have a lot at stake. We can't afford to lose a single vote," she insists.
Outside a Riverside strip mall Monday, 93-year-old Eunice Cole spotted a young Black male wearing an Obama cap.
"Son, are you registered to vote," she asks "Yes ma'am," the young man proudly responds. "What ever you do, don't wear that cap to the polls, you won't be allowed to vote. If you wear an Obama T-shirt to the polls, you'll be turned away," explained Cole. Fact or Fiction?
Newly registered Florida voter Blair Truman is adamant: "I'm going to wear my Obama jersey, hat and Obama Nike's. There's no law in Florida on what you can or can't wear. It's free speech there's a lot of fear mongering and conspiracy to keeps Black's and other minorities from voting," insisted Truman. Fact or fiction?
Millions of newly registered voters are expected to turn out for the November 4 presidential election. Misinformation about voting is running wild says California Secretary of State Debra Bowen. Bowen and election officials across the state have taken the unprecedented step of linking a rumor watch page to official websites to address some of the most common misconceptions.
Bowen says one of the areas causing the most concern is whether voters can wear campaign clothes and buttons when going to vote. The answer in California is No.
In Florida the answer is Yes.
In California: Don't wear campaign materials within 100 feet of a polling place. Electioneering or promoting any particular candidate in the immediate area around polling places is illegal. Vehicles displaying excessive political advertising (excluding bumper stickers) are not allowed within 100 feet of a polling station.
In other states, including Florida, voters can wear such gear. Pennsylvania, a battleground state, still hasn't resolved what voters can wear to the polls. New York and Vermont have banned political items outright. Some California counties will solve the problem by handing out paper smocks. Voters can remove the articles and return to the end of the line. Kentucky says people can wear whatever they want at the polls, as long as they're not a walking billboard.
There's an awful lot of latitude for the states to interpret what is free speech within a polling station, says Gracia Hillman a Commissioner with the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission. She says there's a heightened awareness of these laws this election.
"I think there's an emotional partisanship to this, with respect to the dampening effect such a law may have," she says. "It may be intimidating to new voters who may want to be wearing a shirt proudly for a candidate, then be told they can't do so and vote," says Hillman.
Bowen says as the November 4 General Election fast approaches it's a perfect time to encourage friends and family to get involved in shaping America's democracy by knowing their voting rights. Here are some dos and don'ts:
Do: Choose whether to vote at a polling place or vote by mail and vote by 8 p.m. local time on Election Day. Any California voter can vote by mail (formally known as absentee voting) beginning October 6. The deadline to request a vote-by-mail ballot from your county elections office is October 26. If you prefer the person-to-person experience at your neighborhood polling place, polls will be open between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on November 4. If you would rather vote-by-mail at your convenience, just remember that vote-by-mail ballots also must be turned in by 8 p.m. on Election Day at the polling place in your county or at your county elections office. Postmarks do not count.
Don't: Offer incentives to voters for agreeing to vote a certain way. This is illegal under state and federal law.
Do: Read up on the issues and candidates before voting. Information about the 12 statewide propositions is available in the Official Voter Information Guide mailed to voters or at your local elections office. Information on presidential and legislative candidates can be found online at www.voterguide.sos.ca.gov. Sample ballot booklets sent out to voters offer more information about local candidates and measures.
Do: Know your polling place and your voting rights. If you don't know where your polling place is, call the California Voter Hotline at (800) 345-VOTE. If for any reason, your name is not on the list at your polling place, you have the right to cast a "provisional ballot". The provisional ballot will be counted after election officials have confirmed that you are a registered voter and you did not already vote somewhere else in that election.
Ask a poll worker to give you information on how to find out if your provisional ballot was counted and, if it was not, why not.
Do: Get involved and help make Election Day run smoother for everyone. Host a ballot study group with your neighbors and family members.
For more information, or questions about voting call (800) 345-VOTE or call the Election Protection Hotline (866)-OUR-VOTE 1-866-687-8683 or go online to www.866ourvote.org.