If you're reading this, you're probably someone interested in partaking in American democracy (superb!), but aren't quite sure how to do it (or, especially this year, do it safely). Don't worry, we've got you covered.
We're not going to pretend this is a normal year, or that anything about American democracy feels particularly normal and well-functioning at the current moment. A sense of voter cynicism has set in, especially among young people. Ironically, though, cynicism about our "leaders" is the entire reason why we're supposed to vote in the first place. We're not supposed to place our indefinite trust in these people.
And let's be honest, while they may not admit it, far too many people elected in office and the mega-donors that fund their campaigns don't actually care, specifically, if you vote or not. They just care that they get more votes than their opponents. That's why far too many forms of insidious voter suppression have become the norm, and why common-sense practices to ensure voter safety in the midst of a pandemic have become divisively politicized. It's also why American politics feels like a constant battle between the kinds of people who sit at home comfortably at home and watch MSNBC all day and their peers who sit at home and watch Fox News every day.
Politicians are supposed to care about all of us, but when push comes to shove, they laser-focus on the communities they know will fuel their reelection. It's a vicious cycle we're stuck in right now, but don't count on the powers that be to break it. The simplest step you can take is to register, show up, and let your presence be known. Do it for yourself, but also your friends, family, neighborhood, and communities.
How Do I Register?
The easiest way is to go to vote.gov and enter your home state. You'll then get a link to your state's individual online voter registration form.
In several states you can simply register online. However, in Texas, Wyoming, Montana, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Maine you have to actual submit a physical registration. You can print out the form online, but you'll actually have to put it in a stamped envelope in the mail or drop it off to register. Give yourself ample time before the deadline to make sure you're sorted.
When Do I Need to Register By?
The deadlines vary by state. The earliest deadlines to register to be qualified for the 2020 general election is October 4th in Alaska and South Carolina. Several states allow you to register on the election date, but most fall somewhere in between. (Keep in mind, some states may have different deadlines for online and in-person registration). Here's a helpful guide:
How Do I Get a Mail-In Ballot?
Voting by mail is nothing new, but in recent years, it's become much more commonplace. In fact, almost a quarter of votes in the 2016 general election were cast by mail. Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — do all their voting by mail.
Though, the rules differ by state, and you can enter your information to find the guidelines for your area here.
How Do I Make Sure My Mail-In Vote Counts?
The two main reasons mail-in ballots are rejected are either because it is deemed that the signature of the ballot didn't match that on the voter registration, and because the ballot wasn’t returned on time.
In the first case, keep a record of the signature you registered with, if possible, and make sure it is consistent.
In the second case, the rules and best practices vary by state. In some, your ballot needs to be delivered by election day, in others, however, it only needs to be postmarked by election day.
You can also drop your ballot off at your local election department, and, in several areas, there will be secure ballot drop-off boxes set up. (There's no national database yet.) The best course of action is to locate your county or state's election department. Click here for more information.
Can I Vote Early In Person?
Not sure about mail-in voting, but might be busy on election day? Several states do have in-person early voting, but the dates and process varies greatly (and usually, early voting is only carried out in a few select locations across a county rather than on election day when your polling place is in your area). You can find a calendar of early voting dates by state here.
If I Vote on Election Day, How Long Will It Take?
Well, that is the question! In many places across the country, it's a fairly quick process. We've been in and out in under 20 minutes before. We've also waited up to four hours. Studies have also found that precincts with more non-white voters tend to have longer lines (see, we get why you might cynical). Ask people in your neighborhood if they remember how long it took back in 2016 to get some idea, but hope for the best and prepare for the worst. As long as you're in line before the local close of polling , you will be able to vote.
What Do I Need To Bring To Vote? And What Shouldn't I Bring?
Thirty-six states either require or strongly request that you bring some form of identification to vote. In some states you need an official picture ID, while in others you can just bring a bank statement or utility bill with your address on it. Click here to find a database of the laws by state, and make sure your identification is on order.
We should also note that anything considered to be campaign activity isn't allowed in polling places. Ten states have specific laws that forbid you from wearing clothing or apparel supporting a particular candidate, party or issue to vote in person. It's all rather silly, but for extra security, don't wear anything considered political.
This might make things sound rather complicated, but when you’re registered and do it once, it's not particularly daunting from there. Why do you think people over 60 always show up en masse in each and every local, state, and federal election? They know by now it's pretty simple. (Though, they shouldn't be the only ones making decisions.)
Now that you know how to register to vote, what you do with it is up to you. If you want to go wild and write-in Bella Hadid for your City Comptroller race, that's really between you and your local election board. The important thing is that you show up.