By Margaret Lourdes

After the 2016 presidential conventions, the Internet search term “voter registration” surged 190%. Voter registration laws have been plagued in recent years with legal dramas. Some states are accused of making voter registration more difficult in order to suppress turnout in certain population segments. Likewise, others allege voter laws in some states make it too easy to register, resulting in ineligible people casting election ballots. Legal wrangling aside, for most Americans, the most important things to know as the presidential election approaches are who can vote, how to register, and how to ultimately make your voice count in the political process.

Federal law protects your constitutional right to vote. However, your individual state law governs the rules for how to register and vote. In order to register, you must swear under penalties of perjury that you are a U.S. citizen. You must also be a resident of the state in which you are registering. You must provide proof verifying your identify, which generally includes a driver’s license, passport, the last four digits of your social security number or a state-issued identification. If you have none of these, then typically your Secretary of State can issue you an identification number for the purposes of voter registration. Generally, you provide a physical address at the time you register (post office boxes do not meet requirements). You may appear in person to register at your city or township clerk’s office, or you may obtain a paper application and mail your registration. States, such as Michigan and Illinois, also allow you to register at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Also, many states, such as Nebraska and Arizona, allow you to complete voter registration online.

U.S. citizens living abroad complete different paperwork for voter registration. They must complete a special Federal Postcard Application and Absentee Ballot Request. These forms can be obtained online, at military bases, or at American embassies and consular offices. They must be completed and mailed back to the registrant’s local, home state clerk with instructions for where to forward the absentee ballot. The following government links provide state-by-state forms and instructions for American voters living both in the US and abroad.

Many organizations also exist to help people get to the polls. For example, in Omaha, Nebraska, billionaire Warren Buffet launched a “free ride” program in his district to organize drivers to take people to the 2016 polls. Similarly, in Virginia, both the Democrat and Republican political parties will help voters in need of transportation on Election Day.

You may also request an absentee ballot from your city or township clerk if you are unable to make it to the polls because of temporary travel or disability. In some states, such as Michigan, you are automatically eligible for an absentee ballot if you are over age 60.

Once you’re properly registered, you are able to participate in the political process by casting your ballot for local, state and federal candidates. As with registration, voting procedures are governed by state law. Therefore, you may be required to present your voter ID card along with a photo ID, such as a driver’s license or passport.

Be aware that you may also be challenged at the polls if a qualified “challenger” has good reason to believe you are ineligible to vote. Challengers are appointed by entities such as state-recognized political parties and citizen organizations interested in safeguarding the integrity of elections. Challengers generally must be registered in the state and have a valid ID to prove they are permitted to challenge voters’ eligibility. If you are challenged, you will be required to answer questions under oath to substantiate your eligibility to vote. A neutral person, such as a precinct chair, conducts the verification process regarding voter eligibility.

Lastly, remember, registration and voting are free! Don’t fall for a scam that leads you to believe you must pay for registration forms or pay to vote. Also, don’t fall victim to accepting enticements to vote more than once. Double voting is illegal. Moreover, AARP warns about phony calls alleging to be about registration and polling when they are in fact designed to lure you into giving personal information to identify thieves. You can help keep America’s election fair and honest by keeping a helpful eye on your neighbors, friends and family members who may be elderly or vulnerable to such scams.

Register and vote! It’s our civic duty!

-Margaret A. Lourdes, Esq. is a practicing attorney in Southeast Michigan. She also teaches Business Law and Ethics at a business university.