A self-defense guide to ensure your vote counts in Virginia

AP Political Writer

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Tuesday's election in Virginia could determine the course of American government for the next four years, making the state a bigger target than ever for unscrupulous operatives who use dirty tricks to confuse or scare off voters they see as a threat.

Don't let them. A little backbone and a few simple, commonsense steps can defeat those who might try to keep your vote from counting.

Polls show President Barack Obama virtually deadlocked in his re-election bid with Republican Mitt Romney in Virginia, one of a handful of swing states that will determine which man holds the next four-year lease on the White House.

Also tight is a U.S. Senate race between two former Virginia governors, Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine. Their contest could determine whether Democrats retain their slim Senate majority or Congress is wholly ruled by the GOP.

With stakes so high, Virginia is very likely to see vote fraud and voter suppression efforts by partisan henchmen who've lurked in the dark corners of politics since the dawn of democracy and preyed on the uninformed and timid. In battleground states in previous years, their tools have included phone calls, mailings and even crudely photocopied leaflets to trick voters in areas where one party predominates.

Be highly skeptical if you find a leaflet on your car, tucked in your door or in your mailbox claiming your polling place was just changed. Same if a telephone caller tells you the election has been delayed.

That's the advice of election lawyers who will fan out across the state to watch for abuses. One of them, Courtney Mills of the Fair Elections Legal Network in Washington, D.C., says if it sounds shady to you, it probably is.

"I'd certainly be skeptical," she said. "We've already heard from people who say they've received calls that tell them one party goes to vote on one day and the other party votes on the next day."

Lies like those die when exposed to good, authoritative, firsthand information, and here's how you get it.

Call the general registrar for your home locality. If you don't have computer access, look it up in the blue pages of your phone directory under local government. If you have computer access, go to the State Board of Election Web site and check your registration status and confirm your polling place. (Links are at the bottom of this story.) You can call the nonprofit and nonpartisan voter protection hotline 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683).

Or just head to your customary polling place, Mills said. Most likely, you can vote just as you always have. But go early and take a form of identification acceptable under a new voter ID law Virginia enacted this year.

The late-season arrival of a powerful hybrid hurricane and blizzard known as Superstorm Sandy risks giving credence to bogus poll relocation scams. Don't buy it. Officials expect every precinct to be open and operating as usual.

Should you discover that redistricting really has put you in another precinct, the chief election officer at your old polling place can direct you to the correct new one. You can also get the same information from one of the volunteers outside polling places who will be wearing Election Protection T-shirts, Mills said.

The same applies if you encounter harassment or interference at the polling place, Mills said. Report it to an election officer or a police officer.

Another wrinkle is Virginia's new voter ID law, though even its critics acknowledge it's among the nation's least restrictive.

Virginia and 29 other states have some form of voter ID law in effect Tuesday. Virginia's was passed last winter by the General Assembly's Republican majority and signed into law by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell in the name of thwarting those who would cast votes fraudulently. Democrats denounced it as a voter suppression tactic worthy of Jim Crow, timed to target the poor, the elderly and disabled and minorities who would favor Obama and the Democrats.

A wide array of documentation is acceptable. It includes a valid Virginia driver's license, a voter registration card, a passport, a current employee ID or student ID from a Virginia institution of higher education, a concealed handgun permit, a Medicaid card, a paycheck or a current utility bill. There's a full rundown on the State Board of Elections website.

For good measure, McDonnell ordered the board to print and mail new voter ID cards to all registered Virginia voters before this fall's election.

What changed is this: any voter lacking acceptable identification will be offered a provisional ballot that counts only if the voter submits proof of identity to the local registrar by noon on Nov. 9, the Friday after election day. Previously, those without ID were allowed to sign an affidavit swearing that they are who they claim to be, then vote a regular ballot.

Finally, allow yourself more time than you have in the past if you think there's a chance you'll need to return home for another form of ID or discover that your polling place really has been changed. Under state law, voters who are in line at their polling place before it closes at 7 p.m. must be allowed to vote.

How early you go is your call. Polls open Tuesday at 6 a.m.

Every four years, you get just 13 hours to decide who runs our democratically elected republic.

Don't waste it.


My voter registration status and polling place:

Acceptable forms of voter identification:

What's on my ballot: