Fences surround the Maricopa County Tabulation and Elections Center (MCTEC) in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 25, 2022, to help prevent incidents and pressure on voters at the ballot drop box.
CNN  — 

In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, legal clashes have broken out over whether to count absentee ballots with missing information. In Georgia, conservative activists have continued to pursue mass voter challenges in a last-ditch effort to purge people from the registration rolls.

And in Arizona, some voters have complained of feeling intimidated by the conduct of people – some of whom have been armed – standing watch near ballot drop boxes in the hunt for supposed vote fraud.

“The intensity around election administration has not subsided since 2020,” said Jonathan Diaz, the senior legal counsel for voting rights at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “It’s not just voters, but state and local election administrators are really feeling the pressure from these organized outside groups who have organized these challenges or who taken it on themselves to monitor drop boxes.”

A Reuters-Ipsos poll released last week underscores the tense atmosphere as the country enter the final days of the midterms: 43% of registered voters surveyed said they were concerned about threats of violence or voter intimidation while voting in person.

Everyone should keep in mind that more than 21.4 million pre-election ballots have been cast in 46 states as of Monday, and no violence has been reported so far at ballot drop off locations or centers where people are casting in-person votes.

But given the persistent concerns about voting in this charged political environment, we’ve asked experts such as Diaz for guidance on how to overcome any hurdles.

Voter intimidation

While election officials in spots around the country have reported social media buzz about activists planning to target drop boxes, most reports of actual surveillance have centered on Arizona – a state where false conspiracy theories about election fraud have mushroomed ever since President Joe Biden won this once-deep red state by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2020.

Most Arizonans vote by mail, a longstanding option. And drop boxes are a popular way to return those ballots.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has reported several complaints about voter intimidation at drop boxes to law enforcement. And third-party organizations have gone to court in an effort to stop the surveillance.

Voting rights activists are on high alert and worried that “these ballot box vigilantes are precursors to what we may expect on Election Day at polling places,” said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Diaz stresses that voter intimidation is “illegal everywhere in the United States” under federal law. “While it might be permissible for somebody to set up a folding chair and sit in a parking lot near a drop box,” he said, making voters feel unsafe, brandishing weapons or interfering your ability to cast a ballot crosses the line.

(More examples of illegal behavior and how to confront it from Diaz’s organization, can be found here.)

Bottom line: Diaz and Johnson-Blanco said voters should notify local election officials if they encounter trouble.

And if there’s an immediate threat of harm, call local law enforcement. “They’re going to be the fastest response,” Diaz said.

People who are concerned about venturing to a drop box often have other options for returning their ballots. In Arizona, for instance, ballots can be returned to early voting locations or Election Day polling places.

In addition, organizations ranging from the US Justice Department to the Lawyers’ Committee have established hotlines for voters to call if they experience problems or have questions. (A list of national hotlines appears below.)

How to overcome a voter challenge

Georgia – a key battleground state with competitive contests for governor and a US Senate seat on the ballot – has been Ground Zero for mass challenges. As we’ve written previously, conservative activists have targeted tens of thousands of voter registrations here – empowered by language in Georgia’s 2021 voting law that makes clear that any individual voter in the state can challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of voters.

And while most of the challenges have been tossed out by local elections boards, election officials and voting rights groups say they continue to crop up.

So, what happens if someone shows up to the polls and finds their eligibility has been challenged?

Diaz said it’s important for voters to stand their ground and “calmly”insist on casting a ballot if they know they are qualified to vote, have not yet voted in this election and have been targeted by an erroneous challenge.

“A state cannot just throw out your ballot without notifying you that your vote has been challenged and giving you the chance to prove that you are who you say you are,” Diaz said.

When a voter’s eligibility cannot be determined at a polling place, they might be offered what’s known as a provisional ballot. To get one, voters usually must declare in a sworn statement that they are registered in that county and eligible to vote.

The provisional ballot will be counted if the voter’s eligibility is later confirmed. There’s usually a deadline by which that must happen. In Georgia, for instance, a provisional ballot will count if the voter’s eligibility is confirmed by the county registrar’s office within three days after Election Day.

“Even if you are only offered a provisional ballot, always, always vote,” said Kristin Nabers, Georgia state director of All Voting is Local, a voting rights group. “There’s no way to fix it after Election Day if you don’t vote.”

Have a plan

In many places, voting rules have changed since most Americans last cast general election ballots two years ago under relaxed pandemic rules.

A recent analysis by the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice found 20 states with new restrictive laws that are in effect for this year’s midterm elections. Some states have restricted the locations and availability of ballot drop boxes, for instance. Others have shortened early voting windows or added new voter ID requirements.

“What these laws are setting up is a very different voting experience for voters” than they had in 2020, Johnson-Blanco said. “The message that it’s sending to voters is that ‘if you really want to make your voice heard, you have these multiple hurdles that you have to overcome.’”

She and other experts recommend that voters have a detailed voting plan. For starters, check with your local election office to find out where to vote and what material – such as a photo identification – if any, you might need.

If you are planning to use an absentee ballot, make sure you read the instructions carefully on how to complete and return the ballot and the deadlines for doing so. In Texas, for instance, a law passed last year now requires voters to include one of several identification numbers on the carrier envelope of the ballot. Confusion over that requirement contributed to high ballot-rejection rates during this year’s primaries in the Lone Star State.

(Most places recommend that you don’t mail back an absentee ballot after November 1 to guarantee that it arrives on time. Alternatives include using drop boxes or returning it to the election office or early voting location, depending on where you live.)

If you can, vote early, Diaz said. It’s much easier to sort out any wrinkles if you cast your ballot well in advance of the last day to vote.

If you plan to vote in person, remember that polling places change frequently, and new laws have affected voting procedures.

Previously, for instance, Georgia voters could cast provisional ballots if they showed up at the wrong precinct, and their votes still would count in some races once the board of elections determined that they had cast their ballots in the right county.

But Georgia law now requires officials to toss out all out-of-precinct votes cast before 5 p.m. on Election Day – a potential hardship for a voter who lacks the time or transportation to get to the right polling place on November 8.

Cut through the noise

In the final sprint to Election Day, people are bombarded with information – text messages, phone calls, emails – as political organizations exhort them to cast a ballot as part of the last-minute get-out-the-vote efforts.

“While we know these communications can be annoying and confusing, the purpose of most of them is to encourage voters to exercise their right to vote,” Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said in a recent statement.

Brinson Bell’s team said it’s important to understand, however, that some of these groups might have outdated information. If you get a text message that claims that you haven’t voted but you know that you already have, don’t attempt to vote again, her office warns.

Voting twice in an election is a crime.

Instead, check your status with local officials. Many election offices offer tools that allow you to track your ballot and see whether it has been accepted. Here are examples from North Carolina and Wisconsin.

“The best source of information on when, where and how to vote is going to be your jurisdiction’s local election office,” Diaz emphasized. “Always go with whatever your local official tells you.”

Voter hotlines

Diaz recommends that voters use these numbers to ask questions and report any problems on Election Day:

  • 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) – English, run by Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
  • 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888-839-8682) – Spanish/English, run by NALEO Educational Fund (National Association of Latino Elected Officials)
  • 888-API-VOTE (888-274-8683) – Mandarin, Cantonese, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and English, run by APIA Vote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC
  • 844-YALLA-US (844-925-5287) – Arabic/English, run by Arab American Institute (AAI)
  • Complaints about possible violations of federal voting rights laws can be made by calling the voting section of the US Justice Department’s civil rights division at 800-253-3931.

You need to read

  • This CNN interactive that spells out key voting deadlines in each state.
  • This explainer from our CNN colleagues on some of the nuts and bolts of the election, from ranked choice voting to discussing what our network weighs in deciding to project a winner of a particular race.
  • The deep dive by The Washington Post about how distrust of the 2020 election results in one rural reach of Nevada helped launch an unprecedented hand count of the election. Legal skirmishes late last week halted the hand-counting in Nye County, but local officials have said they were working to find a way to resume.