by Lara Setrakian, ABC News Ballotwatch
Tuesday is Election Day and the stakes could not be higher for a midterm contest: Control of both the House and Senate is up for grabs and could come down to a handful of close elections in a number of key states.
New laws and new voting machines are in place, designed to make the voting process more efficient. But adjusting to so much change in such a competitive political season could also make this one of the most confusing and chaotic Election Days on record.
"There's a massive amount of change in a highly competitive political environment," says Doug Chapin, head of the non-partisan election reform Web site electionline.org. "We're in an election where a tiny number of votes can make a big difference, and we're making sweeping changes. Put the two together and there's bound to be some confusion."
Why is this midterm election so important?
If the House changes hands it will be the first time Democrats have the majority there in over a decade, since Republicans won control in 1994. A change in the balance of power in Washington could recast, and potentially rewrite U.S. policy on the war in Iraq, the war on terror and a range of domestic issues.
Inspired by hanging chads, butterfly ballots and other snafus of the 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002. It called for sweeping changes in our election system, including new voting technology, protections against voter fraud and accessible voting for the disabled.
Millions of Americans will feel the effects of that legislation for the first time this Tuesday. Twenty-six states now ask voters to present some form of ID. According to Election Data Services, 39 percent of voters will be using electronic touch-screen systems, many of them for the first time. That's up from just 12.5 percent of voters who used electronic systems in November 2000.
The vast majority of Americans will have no trouble casting their ballots, other than the annoyance of waiting in line at the polls. But there will inevitably be some problems. With millions of registered voters nationwide, it would be big news if there weren't some incidents of machine malfunction and human error.
The biggest concern for people like Princeton University computer scientist Edward Felten is the risk of high-tech tampering with electronic voting machines. Felten and his team of graduate students issued a study in September that found security flaws with one-touch screen voting machine manufactured by the Diebold Corporation.
It was possible, the study concluded, for someone to introduce a virus into the e-voting system that could steal votes or create a fraudulent vote count. Diebold has challenged Felten's findings, saying among other things that the voting software tested by the study is outdated and has since been replaced.
Liberal interest groups like People for the American Way (PFAW) are worried about problems at the polls that could cause voter disenfranchisement, and other flaws in the voting process. PFAW is spearheading Election Protection 365 and a nationwide hotline for voter-reported problems (1-866-OUR-VOTE).
Republicans, on the other hand, think the risk of confusion may be overstated. They remain focused on getting out the vote and suggest that Democrats and their supporters are simply looking for problems.
Still, most of the problems that will arise -- everything from machines that won't start to power outages -- are simply growing pains as America goes through its first election with revised and computerized voting.
Electionline's Doug Chapin's advice for voters: Be prepared to be patient.
"The voting process is more complex than [it] used to be," he said. "While the goal is to have you in and out as fast as you would be in a drive thru, it's just not that efficient."
Also, he says, don't be afraid to ask questions when you do get to the polls. Too many voters are reluctant to ask potentially important questions that would clarify how to get the process right. As a result, their votes can get lost or disqualified.
"People don't speak up because people think they should have paid more attention in high school government class," Chapin says. "They're embarrassed to ask."
ABC News Ballotwatch: Helping You Help Yourself
ABC News Ballotwatch, a team of reporters who've covered election and legal stories extensively, will track problems at the polls on Election Day. The Ballotwatch team has compiled the tips below to help you make your vote count.
Know Where to Go
The first and most obvious step is finding the right polling place for your area, based on your home address. If you end up at the wrong precinct, you could be turned away or asked to file a provisional ballot. Find your location by checking www.canIvote.org, which will take you to your state's election administration Web site.
In 26 states, voters will now be asked to show some form of identification before casting their ballot. The two strictest states, Florida and Indiana, require government-issued photo ID. Twenty-four others will accept non-photo ID, documents that include Social Security cards, utility bills or a hunting license.
Voter identification requirements have been a hot topic and the subject of lawsuits in Georgia, Ohio, Arizona, New Mexico, Indiana and elsewhere. Republicans and activists say such rules are needed to prevent fraud. Democrats and activists on the other side of the debate argue that requiring identification disenfranchises poor, minority and elderly voters who might not have a driver's license or state-issued ID.
To find out whether you'll need identification to vote and what your precinct will accept, check out the state-by-state chart at electionline.org
Don't have the right ID on Election Day? Ask poll workers if you can vote by filing a provisional ballot. Many precincts around the country will let you vote that way and will count your vote as soon as they verify that it was cast in the right place.
Do a Practice Run
If you're one of the many Americans voting on an electronic machine for the first time, remember that there are ways to get familiar with new voting technologies before and when you get to the polls.
Some polling places have demo machines you can use to practice before you pull that lever or touch that screen for real. As for online resources, you can watch an instructional video or actually click through the series of screens you'll see on Election Day.
Check your state election authority Web site (which you can get to through www.canIvote.org) for streaming video or demo opportunities.
This election season, voters across the country are casting a record number of absentee ballots, votes cast by mail by residents who can't be present on Election Day. In some states, absentee ballots are expected to account for more than half of the votes cast.
For the first time, 29 states allow absentee voting by mail without asking voters to provide an excuse for their absentee status. If you are one of those waiting to cast an absentee ballot at home, make sure you have it delivered or postmarked by the required due date.
Absentee voting isn't something you need to apply for if you live in Oregon. In that state, as well as in some precincts Nebraska, no one will show up to the polls on Tuesday; by law, 100 percent of votes are cast by mail.
For those who haven't yet registered to vote, you're in luck if you live in one of six states that allow Election Day registration -- Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Look Before You Leave
Twenty-two states require voting machines to produce a paper trail -- some physical trace of your vote that can be used in case of a recount. In 17 states that use electronic touch-screen voting, that paper trail is a receipt of your vote, a printout that you can actually see to check that your ballot was correctly cast.
In election jargon, that receipt is called a Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail or VVPAT. It adds an extra layer of security for those who worry about the accuracy of electronic voting.