By Niraj Chokshi
The next 24 hours may remind many of us of a simple truth: Voting is a basic right, but it can be a complicated one to exercise.
Rules vary by state and may change over time, and voters may not know them.
“Here’s what confuses people: everything,” said Daniel Diorio, an election policy specialist with the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, which represents and serves state legislators and their staffs.
Polling places open at different times in different states. Here’s an easy way to check the hours in your state. (Note: Within some states, including Maine, Montana and New York, the hours vary county to county.)
About one in five voters do not know that they live in a state that requires photo identification to vote, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. And voters in 14 states will face restrictions on Tuesday that were not in place during the last presidential election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Generally, voting is a simple process. Here’s a brief guide on what to expect and how to prepare, based on interviews with election experts.
Before you head out
When and where to vote: In the vast majority of states, polling places open at 6 or 7 a.m. and close at 7 or 8 p.m.
Online tools can help voters find polling locations and hours. They include CanIVote.org, a service maintained by the nonpartisan National Association of Secretaries of State; the League of Women Voters Education Fund’s Vote411.org; and Get to the Polls, a service provided through a partnership between the Pew Charitable Trusts and major internet companies.
(Most secretaries of state and some city and county election officials also provide the information on their websites.)
Lines are generally longest before and after work, and during lunch hours, said Kay Stimson, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State. Voters hoping for a quick trip should head to the polls in the mid- to late morning or midafternoon, she said.
Don’t count yourself out: Are you not registered? Have you been convicted of a felony? Don’t lose hope; you may still be able to vote.
Voter registration deadlines vary, but at least a dozen states and the District of Columbia allow eligible residents to register on Election Day, according to USA.gov. (North Dakotans live in the only state without voter registration.)
Citizens unsure of their eligibility can check with local officials directly or, in some cases, through the officials’ websites. To find out more, visit CanIVote.org.
What to bring: Voters should consider whether they need identification and whether to bring notes.
In 32 states, voters must provide a valid form of identification, a requirement that can often, but not always, be fulfilled with a passport or driver’s license, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In the remaining 18 states and the District of Columbia, voters can prove their eligibility by providing some combination of a name, address, date of birth or signature.
While it isn’t necessary, reviewing and even filling out a sample ballot may save time and confusion.
Once you get there
Help is available: Voters who need assistance should ask for it, especially those with disabilities or other needs.
By federal law, voters with disabilities have the right to vote privately and independently, and to be aided by workers at polling places.
“Election officials want to accommodate anybody’s needs in that line,” said Wendy Underhill, the director of elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In many states, including New York, if you’re in line by the time your polling place’s closing time arrives, you are still allowed to vote.
A lot of last-minute campaigning: While many voters may encounter people advocating for a candidate or issue on the way to the polls, states have various laws limiting how close the campaigning can get.
“Everyone’s supposed to be able to show up and vote free from harassment and intimidation,” Ms. Stimson said.
Such restrictive zones, which are typically marked, range in size from a few feet to several hundred feet, typically from the entrance to the polling location, according to a roundup of state laws compiled by the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Whom you can expect to see: Poll workers and other residents casting ballots are not the only people voters may find at their polling places.
Academic and foreign observers may be there to study how well the election is run, while partisan poll watchers may be reviewing sign-in sheets to know which supporters they still need to turn out, Mr. Diorio said.
None, of course, should disrupt or try to influence the voting process.
There may also be authorized “vote challengers” who can question a voter’s eligibility. Who may raise such objections, and what they may question, varies by state, as the National Association of Secretaries of State’s list of poll watcher and challenger laws shows.
At the voting booth
Read the directions and review your ballot: It may sound obvious, but voters should carefully read instructions and always double-check their selections.
“Take the time you need to review your choices and cast the ballot the way you want it to be cast,” Ms. Underhill said.
Voters can ask for replacement ballots if they make a mistake, and are not required to fill the whole thing out, she added.
“This isn’t a test — just vote what you know and are interested in,” she said.
Provisional voting: Voters may cast a “provisional ballot” even if their eligibility is in doubt, though they may be limited in where they can cast such a vote.
For more information, the National Conference of State Legislatures has a detailed briefing on the issue, and state and local election officials and websites should be able to answer any related questions.
Take selfies at your own risk: Voters should be cautious about sharing ballot selfies. As Justin Timberlake found out last month, some states ban them.
According to a review by The Associated Press (and a recent court ruling in California), at least 18 states ban the practice. The laws in a dozen other states are not quite so clear.
The best bet? Follow the lead of Mr. Timberlake’s wife, Jessica Biel, and take a selfie with your “I Voted” sticker instead.