Take Steps to Become an Informed Voter
Disclaimer: This post provides information about preparing to vote in US elections. It is not intended to persuade readers to vote in any specific way or to support any specific political party, candidate, proposition, referendum, or issue.
Here in the US, we are gearing up for the mid-term election in just a couple of weeks. Even when it’s not a presidential election, there are still important races for elected positions in our states, counties, and communities as well as ballot measures like propositions and referendums that have an effect on how we live.
Whether you’re a first-time or long-time voter, there is often something on the ballot that can surprise you or leave you unsure how to vote – unless you’ve done a little extra homework before heading to your polling place. For me, I’m usually unsure about which judges to vote for or get confused by the legalese language of a ballot measure, but now I know where I can get more information so I can make informed voting decisions.
When you take a little time to inform yourself about what’s on the ballot and how you want to vote, then you are more likely to feel invested in the voting process because you better understand how the results of the election will affect you and your community.
According to the Advocacy Alliance Center of Texas (AACT), a non-profit, non-partisan organization in South Texas that works to improve voter registration and voter turnout in their communities:
“Increasing the number of people that vote in each election means better representation, more funding to our communities, and a better quality of life. Politicians listen to two things, money and votes. If we work together as a community and increase voter turnout, then our state and national legislators will listen to our needs. Education, healthcare, immigration, infrastructure, the economy, our veterans, etc. are all affected by our vote.”
To read more about why you should vote, check out AACT’s article “Why Should You Vote?”
Let me take you through some tips to help you be a more informed voter.
Registering to vote and confirming your registration
If you are eligible to vote, you need to register with the state (except in North Dakota) by a specific deadline. Each state makes its own voting and election rules, including when and how to register. You can find your state’s voter registration rules through the USAGov site (Voting and Elections section). This legislatively mandated organization is the official guide to government information and services. You can also go directly to the www.Vote.gov site where you can select your state or territory and be directed to the specific registration information.
If you are already registered, you can also confirm that your voter registration is still current with your state or territory. Again, each state makes its own voting rules, including how to confirm your registration.
States work to keep their voter registrations lists as accurate as possible, which means they will remove registrations if voters are no longer residents and mark some registrations as inactive. Your voter registration could be marked inactive if you meet both of these situations:
You do not respond to election officials’ postcards or letters and
You have not voted in the last two federal elections (a midterm and a presidential election)
If your voter registration becomes inactive, you may have to take additional steps before the voter registration deadline before you can vote. If you don’t, you may have to cast a provisional ballot.
Check with your state or local election office to get the most detailed and up-to-date voter registration information for where you live. A good place to start the confirmation process is from the Can I Vote site, sponsored by the National Association of Secretaries of State.
If you have additional questions, including for US citizens overseas and uniformed service members, you can refer to the USAGov’s How to Register to Vote page and then click on the local election official link.
Be sure to change your voter registration for any of the following reasons:
You move to a new address within your state
You change your name
You want to change your political party affiliation, if stating your affiliation is requested by your state, often for primary elections
When you move permanently to a new state, register to vote in the new state before the voter registration deadline and ensure the form of identification you plan to use, if required, matches your voter registration.
You may need to re-register or change your voter registration for the following reasons:
You move to a different state very close to the date of a presidential primary or general election. Some states require you to live in your new state for up to 30 days before registering to vote.
If you do not have time to re-register in the new state before these elections, you have the right to vote in your old state either in person or by absentee ballot. After that, you must register and then vote in the next election in your new state.
Refer to the USAGov Change Your Voter Registration page for more information and links.
Researching candidates and ballot measures
Doing some homework before you fill out your ballot can make the voting process quicker and simpler. It can also help you feel more comfortable about the voting decisions you’re making, rather than just picking a familiar-sounding candidate name or deciding about a ballot measure without knowing the pros and cons.
A first step is accessing voter guides and sample election ballots, so you know the candidate races and ballot measures to research. According to the USAGov’s Decide Who to Vote For page, “voter guides provide background information on the candidates and ballot measures. They list who you can vote for and offer details on each candidate’s experience and goals. They also explain ballot measures, which are specific questions or issues that you can approve or reject.”
One source for voter guides and sample ballots is from BallotReady, a group that provides personalized, non-partisan information to voters in all 50 states. It allows you to access information based on your residential address. You can then view all candidate races and ballot measures for the upcoming election, review information, and make selections for how you plan to vote. When finished, you can email or print your sample ballot and use it when you vote in person, by mail, or by absentee ballot, as allowed in your state. Note that some states do not allow use of cell phones in the polling place, so check in advance or bring a paper-based sample ballot with your selections.
You can also find voter guides and sample ballots through some regional newspapers and other organizations, such as the League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, grassroots nonprofit dedicated to empowering everyone to fully participate in our democracy. Search online for “voter guides” and check through suggested search qualifiers for the type of voter guide you’re interested in.
Confirming options for how you can vote, where and when to vote, and what to bring with you
If you have voted in more than a couple elections, you know that different voting rules or logistics may change. I have encountered changes in my polling place – perhaps due to lower or higher expected voter turnout or changes in access to specific buildings. And when I moved to a new state recently, I wasn’t sure whether I needed to bring any forms of identification with me to be able to cast my ballot. That’s why it’s a good idea to confirm the following before each election:
Whether you have options for casting your ballot, such as absentee voting or early voting
Requirements for voting for the political party you’re registered with
The polling place location, including parking and public transportation options
The election date and the hours the polls will be open
Voter ID requirements
Who is and isn’t eligible to vote in the US
From the USAGov How, Where, and When to Vote page, you can find links to state-specific rules about many voting logistics:
Absentee and early voting
Absentee voting allows you to cast your ballot before Election Day by mail or drop box. All states have absentee voting, but rules on who can participate vary and how absentee voting works.
Most states also allow you to vote in person during a designated early voting period if it is difficult or impossible for you to vote on Election Day.
You can access more information on the USAGov Absentee and Early Voting page, including the following:
Voting absentee if you live in the US
Voting absentee if you are in the military or overseas
Who is eligible to vote absentee
Requesting an absentee ballot
Checking if your state allows early voting
Whether you have to vote for the party you’re registered with
Even if your state allows you to declare your political party affiliation on your voter registration card, you are not required to vote for that party within a federal, state, or local general election. In presidential primary or caucus elections, however, your state determines whether you must vote for the political party with which you are registered.
You can access information about voting for affiliated political parties and voting in primary/caucus elections and in general elections on the USAGov Do You Have to Vote for the Party You’re Registered With? page.
Voting on Election Day
If you are not voting absentee or early, then you must know the location of your polling place, which is assigned based on your residential address. Your name will not be on the voter roster at any other polling location. Your assigned polling place may change from election to election. My polling location has changed for each of the last three elections.
If your state doesn’t mail you a postcard that gives the polling place for the upcoming election, you can confirm the location on the Can I Vote site and then select the Find Your Polling Place option on the home page. You will be able to select your state and then be directed to the appropriate state site to check for your assigned polling place. Your state election website should also post the polling place hours.
While most states don’t require you to bring your voter registration card to the polling place, a majority of states require you to show identification to vote in person.
Under the Voter ID Requirements section on the USAGov’s Voting on Election Day page, you can access a link to your state’s voter ID requirements on the Voter ID Laws page of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) site. For example, my state of Missouri has a strict photo ID law that requires voters to show a photo ID.
If they don’t present a photo ID, they must vote on a provisional ballot and then return that day before the polls close (7 pm) to show the ID.
Also, federal law requires all first-time voters to show identification if they are not registered to vote in person or show ID before. For more first-time voter information and more details about exceptions to voter identification requirements, refer to the NCSL Voter ID Laws page.
Issues can arise when you try to vote if there are name or address mismatches between your form of identification and the voter roster. If you change your name or move, you must update your voter registration.
If you do not have the required identification or there is a name or address mismatch, there may be other ways you can vote, which vary by state. Most common is the ability to vote using a provisional ballot, which states can use when there is a question about voter eligibility. Provisional ballots are kept separate from other ballots and are counted only if voter eligibility can be confirmed. The voter may have to take additional steps, such as presenting an acceptable form of identification by a specific date or time, to ensure the provisional ballot will be counted.
Who can and can’t vote in US elections
If you have not yet registered to vote, you need to determine whether you are eligible to vote. To vote in US federal, state, and local elections, you must meet the following requirements:
Be a US citizen (non-citizens may be able to vote in some local elections only)
Meet your state’s residency requirements, which includes the homeless
Be at least 18 years on or before Election Day (some 16 year olds are allowed to vote in local elections only)
Are registered to vote by your state’s voter registration deadline (North Dakota does not require voter registration. Almost all states allow voter registration before you turn 18 if you will be 18 by Election Day.)
The following groups of people are not allowed to vote in US federal, state, and most local elections:
Non-citizens, which includes permanent residents
Some people following felony convictions or who are currently serving time for other crimes (voting rules vary by state)
Some people who are mentally incapacitated (voting rules vary by state)
For president in general elections: US citizens residing in US territories
You can access more information on the USAGov’s Who Can and Can’t Vote in US Elections page.
Take time to prepare and be ready to vote!
Setting aside a few minutes to check your voter registration, confirm your polling place and hours, and whether you need to bring specific identification can prevent needless frustration on Election Day. Researching candidates and ballot measures in advance can ensure your votes most closely match how you want the federal, state, and local government to operate for you and your community.
Let me know in the Comments below if you use other non-partisan sources to be an informed voter.