08/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Where Are Your Votes?

So you're engaged in the presidential race -- where are your votes? Some of you are thinking: "it's summer -- we have weeks and weeks to go before worrying about these particulars." Really? The temptation is to save get-out-the-vote efforts for the last days before Election Day. Big mistake! You have less than 100 days for Barack Obama to win or lose in your community so let the pundits bob and weave around conflicting polls about registered and likely voters being tracked in various degrees of accuracy and spin -- for you, the only poll that counts is Election Day; everything else is just a conversation -- not a political action.

What to do? As I lay out in Campaign Boot Camp: Basic Training for Future Leaders, recruit an election protection team to find your votes: maintain an inventory of eligible voters, voting systems, and resources needed to ensure that your supporters vote and that their votes are counted as cast.

Election protection efforts reflect your vision to advance civil rights, promote voting rights, and conduct oversight of voting systems. As voting rights maven Donna Brazile counsels: "The election protection team's primary responsibility is to anticipate and address uninformed poll workers, new voting systems, purges of voter registration lists, voter suppression, misinformation, and intimidation tactics. The team needs to be in place early to ensure the elections are being administrated in a fair and transparent manner. The more issues that can be addressed in advance, the more access voters will have to the process. An election protection team is one way of making sure that everyone who can vote has their vote counted."

To start, recruit people with GOTV experience who understand the voting patterns of the community; people who know the county election officials who have custody of the voter file; and, representatives of constituency groups who have voting rights expertise and who can add counsel and help with get-out-the-vote efforts across the electorate. Assign team members to leadership roles in monitoring "hot spots" such as early voting, military ballots, Americans living overseas, and college campuses so that your team will know exactly how many people vote early; how many will be casting military, overseas, and college campus ballots.

These lawyers and legal observers should be available now -- 14 weeks out -- and on call through Election Day for training and precinct work. On Election Day, they'll take information by cell phone and camcorder recordings of incidents and work with election incident clearinghouses.

Your election protection team should prepare to take these 6 steps to protect the vote:

1. Know Your Voters. Your goal is to be sure that all your voters come out to the polls, vote for your cause or candidate, and have their votes be counted as cast. So you need to know who is registered, who is eligible, what voter identification if any they need to bring to the polls, and whether they are permanent absentee voters (meaning they will be dropping off their ballot at the polls). By identifying supporters and gaining up-to-date voter registration lists, you will have a sense of who is eligible to vote in that precinct. If same-day registration is allowed, you will need to know the eligibility requirements.

2. Know Your Voting Rights. The three most basic voting protections to remind voters are these: first, you have a right to view a sample ballot at the polling place before voting; second, if you are in line before the published closing time, you are entitled to cast a ballot; and third, if you have problems, you are still entitled to cast a provisional ballot.

3. Know Your Ballot. With several races on the ballot at once, you will want voters to find your candidate or ballot initiative easily. If your candidate is running against a dozen people for city council and voters can pick up to three choices, let them know that in advance. If your community has ranked choice or instant runoff voting, be sure your supporters and pollwatchers have explained the process to your voters. Finally, if you have paper ballots, be sure that people know to vote on the front and back sides of the ballot. It would be a shame to draw people out to the polls for a "down-ballot race" (a candidate or initiative literally situated down the ballot from the top-tier races for higher office), only to have them miss your race!

4. Know Your Voting Systems. Your election protection team will have a list of the types of voting machines (paper ballots, punch cards, touch screens, optical scanners, and so forth) used at each precinct. That way, your pollwatchers know the types of equipment being used for casting and counting ballots and the challenges unique to particular systems. Your team will want to know what machinery is being used; any research regarding possible tampering and computer malfunctions, particularly with the touch screens; and whether there are sufficient protections for disabled voters so that, pursuant to federal law, they are enabled to vote independently. Rather than training everyone about every kind of voting system, be efficient and target your trainings. In a congressional district with five counties, you might have five different kinds of voting systems, so be sure your inventory is accurate and that you conduct five distinct trainings -- one per county.

5. Know Your Legal Options. A smooth election protection operation allows pollwatchers and hotlines to solve election problems before provisional ballots are cast. When your pollwatchers identify problems, they should contact a member of your election protection team who can work on the problem -- and even call a judge if necessary. Better to work out the challenge beforehand if possible, rather than adding a vote to the pile of provisional votes that may or may not ever be counted.

6. Document Everything. In case of a recount or challenge, sworn affidavits and cell phone videos of the challenges make the evidence more tangible. In the end, your election records should demonstrate that your team took exquisite care to ensure that the laws were followed and that the votes were counted as cast.

The goal is to wake up after Election Day with no regrets. In order to do so, begin planning now. The vote you protect may be your own.