Navigating the Election Process for Students & First Time Voters A Beginners Guide to Election Rights, Rules and Regulations

First-time voters are some of the most important Americans to show up on Election Day because they represent the newest voices making their wishes for government known. Because Millennials now represent both the largest group of first-time voters and 31 percent of the population, their votes have the power to enact great change at the polls. But learning about how the voting process works and getting registered can seem overwhelming – especially for students or other young people who already have enough on their plates. The following guide simplifies what it takes to cast your first vote and offers helpful advice to prepare you for the polls. Keep reading to learn how easy it is to make a difference.

expert contributor
BRENDA A. GADD has worked in elections,
local and state
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How to Vote in Six Easy Steps

From registering to casting the first ballot, becoming a first-time voter is a process, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Students and other first-timers can ensure their votes are counted fellow Americans by following a few basic steps listed below. There are countless resources available at both the state and federal level to help people unfamiliar with voting walk out of their polling station wearing an “I Voted!” sticker on election day.

Step 1: Register to Vote

Voter registration is not federally managed, meaning states and territories have unique requirements. Most states allow residents to register online, in person, or via a paper form, provided they are qualified to vote and meet the registration deadline. If a voter knows they won’t be in their state at the time of an election, they can fill out the Federal Postcard Application for absentee voting.

Step 2: Research Political Parties, Candidates

Being an informed voter allows individuals to select candidates based on their stated platforms without relying on party propaganda or media coverage. By researching parties and candidates, informed voters are able to make knowledgeable decisions about who their votes support. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities offers a comprehensive guide to becoming an informed voter.

Step 3: Know the Issues

Once a new voter is familiar with the basic tenets of political parties, they are able to learn about the issues at stake during the election. Be it a presidential or city council election, candidates almost always share the vision for their time in office on their website. Voters should review this information and consider how it aligns with their personal beliefs about how government should function.

Step 4: Check State Rules & Regulations

Most voting stations are open at least 12 hours on election day, allowing students or those with busy workdays ample time to vote. Although only 35 states currently require voters to show a photo ID, first-time voters who registered by mail have other requirements. According to federal law, individuals who have not voted previously must bring a valid photo ID or a bill, pay stub, or government document showing their name and current address.

Step 5: Find Your Polling Place

State election offices assign polling locations based on a voter’s address, so students and others who aren’t sure where to go to vote can either contact their election office or use Get to the Polls to find out where they should be. Information about state and local election offices can be found via the search tool on USA.gov.

Step 6: Cast Your Ballot

Gone are the days of hanging chads and delayed results, as states now use electronic voting systems, either optical scanning or touch screens on election day. Gizmodo provides a list of states and the type of machines used by each so students and other first-time voters feel confident and knowledgeable. Voters may not have to vote for every office on the ballot, and are also allowed a write-in if the candidate of their choosing is not on the official ballot.

Onward, First-Timers!

Of the more than 131 million votes cast during the 2008 election, first-time voters accounted for more than 15 million.

Source: Project Vote, 2011

First-Time Voter Demographics

First-time voters mirror the same diversity shown in the general voting population, but often their interests reflect the shifting tide of generations – for example, Millennials are currently the largest group of first-time voters. Whether voting for the first time as a college student, a military member or an individual with disabilities, learn more about the resources available to you, and get information on how to connect with others who are passionate about similar issues below.

Who: High School and College Students
Why They Are Important: Students make up the largest group of first time voters. The median age for students was 27 in 2011 according to the Digest of Education, yet the U.S. Census shows eligible voters age 18 to 29 are consistently the least likely to actually cast a ballot. Because they are generally younger in age, students are often considered the next generation of voters, and carry a different perspective than their older counterparts.

Hot button issues for student voters may include the cost of college tuition, affordable health care coverage, minimum wage regulations and climate change.
Voting Groups & Organizations:
  • Brennan Center for Justice, Student Voting

    A collection of voting resources for students from the New York University School of Law, the Brennan Center provides a guide to help students understand voting regulations, residency requirements and more, broken down for all 50 states.

  • California Secretary of State – Voting Options for College Students

    Students can check their Secretary of State website for Student Voting information. This page, offered by the California Secretary of State, details information on student voter registration, voting by mail and new voter information.

  • Campus Vote Project

    Launched in 2012, the Campus Vote Project helps colleges and universities empower and encourage their students to vote. They provide voter education information and work to knock down the barriers and stigmas associated with voting.

  • Junior State of America

    This national civics education and leadership program focuses on familiarizing high school students with political processes. This site also provides voting information and registration resources for students.

  • StudentVote

    A non-profit group that promotes student voting by offering easy online voter registration services and information, in an effort to get more students to the polls on election day.

Who: Anyone between the ages of 18 and 24
Why They Are Important: The youth population is made up of 46 million eligible voters – compared to 39 million senior voters – giving them significant influence over election results. Getting young people to take part in the election process early on encourages civic engagement and makes it more likely they’ll continue to be involved throughout their lifetimes – perhaps even running for office themselves one day.

Hot button issues may include student loans, environmental sustainability, education, equality in jobs and financial security.
Voting Groups & Organizations:
  • The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

    This organization focuses on engaging youth voters in the election process and provides up-to-date research on relevant topics.

  • Pew Research Center – Young Voters

    PEC completed an in-depth research study on the habits of young voters in the 2008 election, including breakdowns on age, gender, ethnicity and educational levels.

  • Project Vote – Youth Voting

    Youth looking to learn more about how to get involved in elections can review the range of resources available on Project Vote’s website.

  • Rock the Vote

    Rock the Vote focuses on harnessing energy for the election process in the Millennial generation and provides a range of helpful information for young voters.

  • Youth Vote

    This organization emphasizes issues important to youth voters and encourages their engagement in making a difference via the political process.

Who: Individuals who identify as LGBTQ and their Allies
Why They Are Important: LGBTQ individuals, and Americans who support equality and civil rights, make up an ever-growing and important portion of voters. Individuals who identify as LGBTQ comprise five percent of the voting population, while their allies significantly boost that number. Between 2001 and 2015, support for same-sex marriage has grown by 20 percent. Meanwhile, a study by the Human Rights Campaign found that the LGBTQ community’s votes in 2012 provided a significant increase to President Obama’s popular vote margins.

Hot button issues for LGBTQ voters may include LGBTQ rights, adoption rights, health care and racial equality.
Voting Groups & Organizations:
  • American Civil Liberties Union

    The ACLU hosts a section of their website devoted to LGBT rights and tracking current legislation relevant to LGBTQ individuals.

  • Equality California

    EQ-CA is an example of a state-level political organization working to support the LGBTQ community via politics. Be sure to look for a similar program in your state.

  • Human Rights Campaign

    As the leading advocacy group for the advancement of LGBTQ issues, HRC is a valuable voice in politics.

  • LGBT Voters’ 2016 Political Clout

    The Wall Street Journal hosts an interactive state map showing the percentage of LGBTQ individuals across the country.

  • National LGBTQ Task Force

    This national non-profit supports legislative agendas benefiting the LGBTQ community and keeps readers updated on important advancements in full civil rights.

Who: Current and former members of any branch of the U.S. Military
Why They Are Important: There are currently 24 million Americans, or 10 percent of eligible voters, who are active military members or veterans. In addition to those with direct experience, millions of other citizens support current or former members of the military, giving this population a significant amount of political sway. Military voters vary from other demographic groups such as young voters, representing Americans across the lifespan.

Hot button issues for military voters may include national security, foreign policy, health care and education.
Voting Groups & Organizations:
Who: The minority racial categories recognized by the U.S. Census, including Alaska Native, Asian American, Black/African American, Native American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander.
Why They Are Important: Long called a melting pot, America is home to a large number of people of different ethnicities and races with increasingly powerful voices when it comes to voting. A study by the Pew Research Center found that minority Americans will make up 31 percent of eligible voters in the 2016 election, a two percent increase since 2012.

Hot button issues for minority voters may include immigration rights, police misconduct, civil rights and racial justice.
Voting Groups & Organizations:
  • Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote

    APIA engages Americans of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage and offers resources to help them be informed and confident voters.

  • League of Minority Voters

    Although this organization is specific to Oregon, many states have similar groups devoted to encouraging voter participation amongst minority voters.

  • The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation

    With a mission to ensure every Black American takes part in the democratic process, this organization provides a wealth of information about voting and civic participation.

  • National Commission on Voting Rights

    NCVR is committed to protecting voter rights and ensuring every eligible voter understands their eligibility to vote.

  • Voto Latino

    By engaging with the Latino voting population, Voto Latino hopes to ensure more members of this minority show up at the polls and fully understand the issues important to them.

Who: Americans who believe in some version of a higher power.
Why They Are Important: Although America has traditionally identified as a Christian nation, the religious landscape has shifted in recent years. Still, only 23 percent of Americans identify as religiously unaffiliated, meaning the vast majority of the country still consider themselves religious. Different denominations and faiths tend to vote according to party lines: 56 percent of Evangelical Protestants are affiliated with the Republican Party, while 69 percent of all Buddhists consider themselves Democrats.

Hot button issues for religious voters may include abortion rights, family values, religious liberty and separations of church and state.
Voting Groups & Organizations:
Who: Any individual with a physical, cognitive, developmental or other type of disability.
Why They Are Important: Americans with disabilities represent 19 percent of the country’s population, or one-fifth of all those eligible to vote. Still, only 27.5 percent of voters with disabilities took part in the 2012 election, mostly due to voting difficulties. The Election Assistance Commission is working to resolve issues during the last major election to ensure more voters with disabilities are able to make their voices heard.

Hot button issues for voters with disabilities may include the health care, education, accessibility, funding for research, minimum wage versus living wage and mental health resources.
Voting Groups & Organizations:
Who: Female Americans
Why They Are Important: Women in America currently make up 50.8 percent of the population, but it’s not only their slightly higher numbers that makes their vote important. Since 1964, the percentage of women who went to their polls has been higher than men: in the 2012 election, 71.4 percent of all American women voted, compared to just 61.6 percent of men. Women have the opportunity to affect change every time they vote in an election.

Hot button issues for women voters may include equality in pay, reproductive rights, LGBTQ issues, access to healthcare, affordable education and paid maternity leave.
Voting Groups & Organizations:
  • League of Women Voters

    This national organization empowers women to use their voices in the political process to make informed decisions about issues that matter to them.

  • League of Women Voters of Florida

    Although this organization is specific to Florida, there are many different state and city-specific chapters for women seeking a local organization.

  • National Women’s Political Caucus

    This non-profit encourages women not only to take part in deciding America’s future by voting, but also through running for office and serving as an elected official.

  • Voices of Conservative Women

    Women who believe in fiscal responsibility, limited government and a free market can find likeminded individuals through this organization.

  • Women’s Campaign Fund

    This organization works to ensure more women are elected to political office at local, state and federal levels.

Lower Age, Lower Registration Rates

Young adults are lowest in numbers when it comes to registering and voting. In 2014, under 20 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted. Roughly 30 percent were not even registered to vote.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2014

Breaking It Down: Voting Rights & Rules

When George Washington was elected America’s first President, only six percent of the country was allowed to vote. Voting rights have expanded significantly since 1789, but it took much devotion and sacrifice to ensure every eligible American has the opportunity to take part in this civic activity. Here are the rights every U.S. citizen has when it comes to voting.

NATIONAL RIGHTS & RULES
  • Age Requirements

    All voters in national elections must be 18 at the time of the election. Some states allow individuals who are 17 to vote in the primaries, provided they will be 18 when the general election takes place.

  • Disability Assistance

    According to federal provisions, individuals who are visually impaired, unable to read or write, or affected by another disability are allowed to bring someone to provide assistance while casting their vote. A few states also provide curbside voting for voters who can’t easily leave their vehicles.

  • Help for First-Time Voters, Others

    Individuals may feel a bit nervous the first time they step into the polling station, but federal law allows poll workers to offer extra assistance to these voters. Voters are also allowed to ask for help if their polling station has installed new equipment since the last time they went to the polls.

STATE-SPECIFIC RIGHTS & RULES
  • Voter Identification

    As of 2016, 33 states had laws requiring some type of identification be shown on election day. Individuals planning to cast a ballot should research the rules of their state before setting off for the polling station.

  • Early Voting

    This method of voting was developed to provide Americans with every opportunity to make their voice heard, even if they are out of town or otherwise engaged on election day. Most states have rules in place about early voting, including approved locations and set dates. These can be found by contacting a local voting official or viewing a complete list provided by Vote.org.

  • Closed vs. Open Primaries

    Although primaries run the gamut between closed and open voting – with other options including partially closed, partially opened, top two, and open to unaffiliated voters – each type relates to whether or not voters unaffiliated with a party can vote. While closed primaries don’t allow unaffiliated voters to vote for partisan candidates, open primaries will accept votes for either candidate from those who aren’t registered with a specific party. Check your state’s primary designation with the National Conference of State Legislators.

Choosing a Party or Political Affiliation

The political spectrum in America is traditionally been described on a left to right axis, with Democrats on the left, Republicans on the right, and Independents resting across the middle. The two parties make up the mainstay political system, with smaller parties such as Libertarians and Greens peppered amongst them. Declaring a party affiliation is only required to vote in closed primaries, so students and other first-time voters can decide whether or not they want to align or remain independent when it comes time to vote.

Democratic Party

Prominent Political Figures: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi

As one of the two main parties of America, the Democratic Party has been in operation since 1828. The current Democratic Party, popularized by a donkey logo, follows a modern liberal platform focused on human rights, equality, universal healthcare, affordable education, environmental sustainability and progressive taxation based on income.

Green Party

Prominent Political Figures: Jill Stein, Ralph Nader, Gayle McLaughlin

The current iteration of the Green Party was formed in 2001 on the back of several earlier groups. The party espouses four values, including ecological wisdom, social justice, grassroots democracy, and nonviolence. Sometimes referred to as Greens, there are currently 137 elected officials from this party serving throughout the country. In terms of platform, it is most closely aligned to the Democratic Party.

Libertarian Party

Prominent Political Figures: Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, William Weld

Created in 1971, the Libertarian Party is focused on minimizing government and maximizing freedom. As fierce proponents of small, non-invasive governing, the libertarian platform is fiscally conservative yet socially liberal. The party also takes a non-interventionist stance on issues related to foreign policy.

Republican Party

Prominent Political Figures: Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, John McCain

Also commonly referred to as the GOP, or Grand Old Party, the Republican Party is one of the two main American political parties and was founded in 1854. As the party of Lincoln and Roosevelt, the platform traditionally revolves around small government, free enterprise, family values, tighter immigration policies and gun ownership rights.

Independent Party

Prominent Political Figures: Bernie Sanders, Angus King, Jesse Ventura

Also known as the Independent American Party, the party was organized to unite independent voters, the silent majority and grassroots organizations under the same umbrella, standing united yet keeping separate identities. The Independent platform focuses on maintaining unalienable rights to life, liberty and happiness, stressing family and citizenship, limited taxation, free enterprise and government’s responsibility as an agent of and for the people.

NON-PARTISAN, OR NOT CHOOSING AN AFFILIATION

Although America’s traditional political values are based around political parties, some voters may choose to remain non-partisan, or unaffiliated. Citizens who choose to be non-partisan are often drawn to stances and beliefs of multiple parties, yet also disagree with some ideologies within those them as well. By remaining non-partisan, these voters select candidates based on individual elections versus exclusively towing a party line. The most important thing non-partisan voters should keep in mind is their state’s method of conducting primaries.

Semi-Closed Primary

Non-partisans may choose which party primary they would like to vote in.

Closed Primary

Non-partisans are unable to vote for candidates in other parties.

Learn More
Open Primary

Everyone may vote for the candidate of their choice, with or without party affiliation.

Learn More

Quiz: Which Party Do You Identify with Most?

One of the biggest questions students and other first-time voters may have is how each party’s platform aligns to their beliefs. The stances different political parties take on hot-button issues such as universal healthcare, environmental rights and foreign policy can vary greatly, but the quiz below helps first-time voters learn how their views are represented in the political spectrum. Get clicking to see how much your beliefs align with each party on the following major issues.

Source: Democrats.org, GP.org, GOP.com, LP.org

  • I am most drawn to the following word:
    Question 1 of 8
    a

    Liberal

    b

    Alternative

    c

    Moderate

    d

    Idealist

    e

    Conservative

  • This statement best matches my stance on climate change:
    Question 2 of 8
    a

    We need more environmental restrictions and regulation to protect our planet.

    b

    Climate change is the most pressing global issue to date.

    c

    Climate change needs to be addressed, but it is not my biggest priority.

    d

    Businesses should take the initiative to protect the environment and natural resources on their own.

    e

    Science doesn't support overly-aggressive environmental regulation campaigns that restrict business and industry.

  • This statement best matches my stance on abortion:
    Question 3 of 8
    a

    Abortion is an unrestricted right and should remain that way.

    b

    A woman has the right to control her own body, and national health care should cover abortion.

    c

    There is a lot of gray area here.

    d

    The government should not regulate abortion or any other medical procedure.

    e

    I support human life starting at conception.

  • This statement best matches my stance on national security:
    Question 4 of 8
    a

    Investing in intelligence, sharing information and diplomacy with global allies is the best way to protect our nation.

    b

    The U.S. should work to abolish nuclear weapons and the stockpiling of other chemical or biological weapons.

    c

    The government may be monitoring us too much, but national security is a real concern.

    d

    We should support military funding for our own initiatives, but limit involvement in global peacekeeping.

    e

    Military action is a necessity, and should be used as a strategy to deter terror attacks against the United States.

  • This statement best matches my stance on economics:
    Question 5 of 8
    a

    Our economy is headed in the right direction, but we still need more tax reforms that help working families.

    b

    Wealth inequality is growing; we need a sustainable solution to reduce national debt and address issues like poverty and homelessness.

    c

    Everyone deserves an equal opportunity to succeed, but people should not be allowed to take advantage of government services.

    d

    People should have the right to keep the money they earn at work. The IRS and income tax should be abolished.

    e

    The so-called economic rebound has been disappointing. High corporate taxes are preventing job creation, and hyper-taxation is not the answer.

  • This statement best matches my stance on health care:
    Question 6 of 8
    a

    The Affordable Care Act has helped more Americans get health coverage. This was an important step toward health care reform.

    b

    Every person should have access to adequate, affordable health care. The government should offer medical services for all.

    c

    Health care is still unaffordable, and we need a better solution than what the current system offers.

    d

    Individuals should be allowed to choose the level of health insurance they want, and if they want to have health insurance at all.

    e

    The Affordable Care Act has driven up prices. Reducing health care regulations will enable insurance companies and doctors to contain costs.

  • This statement best matches my stance on marriage and civil rights:
    Question 7 of 8
    a

    Civil rights should be the same for all Americans, and supporting marriage equality, non-discrimination policies and equal pay for equal work is important.

    b

    Barriers based on racism, sexism, heterosexism and ageism should be eliminated and respect for ethnic, racial, sexual and spiritual diversity is key.

    c

    I support civil rights, and activism is important when done correctly.

    d

    Gender, sexual orientation or immigration status should not impact the government's treatment of a person. The government should protect every individual's right to life, liberty and property.

    e

    Family is the cornerstone of America, and the cornerstone of family is natural marriage between one man and one woman.

  • This statement best matches my stance on higher education:
    Question 8 of 8
    a

    Increasing access to higher education and expanding college financial aid is important, as is making it easier for students to pay back loans.

    b

    Student loans should be available to all college students, with forgiveness for graduates who go into public service occupations.

    c

    Earning a college degree is important, and college affordability is a growing issue.

    d

    Education is a personal responsibility, it's not the government's job to control or regulate it.

    e

    Government should not be originating student loans. Students should have more private financing options, and creating more private educational institutions should be encouraged.

Result

Reset

Source: Democrats.org, GP.org, GOP.com, LP.org

Degrees = Votes

Regardless of age, education level is a significant factor when it comes to voting in the U.S. 56 percent of Americans with a bachelor’s degree cast their vote in 2014, compared to only 22 percent of those without a high school diploma.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2014

Myth vs. Fact: What to Expect at the Polls

Let’s face it: the idea of voting can be intimidating if you haven’t done it before. Whether you aren’t sure if you’re properly registered or are worried about being judged when or on how you vote, keep reading to learn more about how these common misconceptions can be easily dispelled.

Decades of Decline

Young voters have become less engaged throughout the decades. In 1964, 51 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 voted. In 2012, only 38 percent of the same demographic went to the polls.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2014

Voting Away from Home

Students aren’t the only ones who may be voting away from home. While it may add a few extra steps to the process – including possibly providing an excuse for not voting on election day in your district, or turning in an early ballot – the benefit of getting to exercise the right to vote should far outweigh the time and effort it takes to vote away from home. Here are some simple solutions:

Early Voting

Voters who aren’t going to be near their local polling station have the option to vote early in 27 states. Early voting dates are set by each state, so those with this option available to them should check with the local election commission.

Absentee Voting

All 50 states currently allow residents to vote absentee, though 20 require voters to provide an excuse of why they can’t show up on election day. These are often due earlier than the actual election day, so it’s important to check the due date with your local election commission.

Changing Residency to Vote

Many college students may be confused about where to vote and if they can use their school address for voter register. This is mandated on the state level, so students should check with both their home state and the state where their school is located for clarification.

Presidential Power

More people turn out to vote when a presidential candidate is on the ballot. The 2014 Congressional elections saw only a 42 percent voter turnout while 62 percent of Americans voted in the 2012 Presidential election.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2014

What Type of Election, and What’s on the Ballot?

Although the most publicized vote for the President takes place during the general election, there are many different opportunities to help decide the future of local, state and federal offices. Don’t worry if you don’t know everything about each candidate: most states don’t require poll-goers to cast a mark for every office or ballot measure up for vote.

Type of Election or Vote What is it? When does it happen? Who / What are we voting on?
General Election

A General Election is the election when political candidates are directly elected to office. Voters also choose federal, state and local representatives and whether or not to pass ballot initiatives.

Every four years, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

  • President, Vice President of the U.S.

  • Federal Offices: U.S. Senate and House of Representatives

  • State Offices: Governor; Lieutenant Governor: Secretary of State; Attorney General; State Treasurer; State Controller; State Senate and Assembly members; State Board of Education members; State Judges

  • County Offices: Assessor; Auditor; Clerk; Commissioner; District Attorney; Sheriff; Treasurer; Judges; County Representatives

  • Municipal Offices: Mayor; City Manager; Judges; Council members; School Board members; etc.

  • Ballot Measures and Proposed Legislation

Mid-Term Election

A Mid-Term election is used to elect a range of federal, state and local offices in the years when a Presidential seat is not up for election.

Every four years in the two years before/after a General Election

  • Federal: U.S. Senate and House of Representatives

  • State Offices: Governor; Lieutenant Governor.

  • Municipal Offices: Mayor

Primary Election

Primary elections help determine the candidate for each political primary prior to the General Election.

The process typically starts in late January or early February

  • The candidate from each political party who will be nominated to run for President.

Closed Primary

A type of primary election, Closed Primaries require voters to affiliate with their chosen party and vote for the candidate within that group.

Closed Primaries take place during the Primary Election cycle

  • The candidate from each political party who will be nominated to run for President.

Open Primary

A type of primary election, Open Primaries allow registered voters to remain unaffiliated and vote for a candidate from any party.

Closed Primaries take place during the Primary Election cycle

  • The candidate from each political party who will be nominated to run for President.

Convention

Party Conventions serve as the culminating event of the primary season after every state has cast their votes in the Primaries.

Every four years at the end of the Primary season

  • Each political party hosts their own convention where the nominee of that party is official chosen through the gathering of delegates from all 50 states.

Special or By-Election

Special or By-Elections take place when an office has become open between a General or Mid-Term election

Dependent on when the office or seat becomes available

  • These elections can be for offices on the local, state or federal level.

Caucus

Serving a similar purpose as a primary, caucuses are arranged by state party officials and used to gather together members of a specific political group. Attendees of a caucus pick delegates to represent the interests of the state at the party convention.

During the Primaries of a General Election year

  • A caucus selects the delegates who will represent the state at the party’s national convention.

Referendum

A referendum is a special, direct vote on a specific question or proposal. A recent example of a referendum is the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union.

There is no set time when a referendum vote can be called.

  • This vote is typically not cast to elect an office, but rather to decide a question or to reject or accept a proposal.

Expert Advice for First Time Voters

Brenda A. Gadd has worked in elections, local and state government for over 15 years. In 2014 she managed the successful retention election of Tennessee Supreme Court Justices. She’s contributed to the Brennan Center’s “Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections” and gives presentations on the Tennessee legislature, elections and advocacy efforts. She lives in Nashville and enjoys spending time with her family and checking out the latest local craft brewery.

What should first-time voters keep in mind when heading to the polls?

The most important thing you can do is make sure your registration is complete! Most first-time voters can visit their Secretary of State’s website to confirm. In Tennessee, if you registered to vote by mail, you must vote in person the first time. If you registered in person (by taking your registration form to your county’s election commission office) you can vote in person or absentee by mail. Bringing your ID is also really important in a lot of states, so check with your local official about whether or not this is required. Some of the types of IDs that are typically acceptable include a driver’s license, U.S. passport, government photo ID, military photo ID or a handgun carry permit that has a photo.

What advice do you have for first-time voters who aren’t sure which candidates to choose?

Try to learn as much as you can about them!

For candidates on the federal level, there is a great resource recommended by the League of Women Voters that can help you decide. The Candidates and Where They Stand On the Issues is provided by “ProCon” and lets you review each presidential candidate’s stance on a range of issues. For local and state elections, Vote411 is a reliable, non-partisan organization that collects information from candidates on issues and platforms.

Why should Americans take part in smaller elections, even when they aren’t deciding the President?

Local elections are some of the most important. From reproductive rights to education policy, most of the issues that affect you daily are decided at the state and local level. Nashville just finished a school board election in which only about 15 percent of eligible voters turned out. The school board determines which schools gets funding, so it’s a massively important vote. Right now, the Metro Council is considering affordable housing policy that has potential to helping those who are getting squeezed out by the city’s recent boon.

Why is it important for Americans to vote?

The right to vote is the most important right granted to a U.S. citizen. Our nation’s history has involved discrimination of one group of Americans after another – people having to fight for their right to vote. On August 26, we celebrate women’s equality day, a day on which women who had fought – literally fought and went to jail – finally saw the ratification of the 19th Amendment on that day in 1920. We walk in the path of many who sacrificed so much for our right to vote. It’s important!