Navigating The Election Process
For Students and First Time Voters


Voting is an important way to make your voice heard and participate in the democratic process. But if you're a student or first time voter, it's easy to feel intimidated by the voting process. How do you vote? What's on the ballot?

Our first time voter guide, also known as voting 101, outlines the election process so you know how to vote and what to expect at the polls.

How To Vote in Five Easy Steps

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 qualify 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.

Register to Vote

Step 2: Research Candidates and Political Parties

An informed voter makes an informed choice. Before filling out your ballot, make sure to research candidates for office, political parties, and ballot initiatives.

To learn more about candidates, voters can check out VoteSmart, which lists voting records and provides a searchable database on multiple topics. FactCheck.org helps voters separate fact from fiction, and I Side With… lets voters see which candidates best match their views on the issues. The major political parties post their official party platforms on their websites, which helps voters understand the party's priorities.

Visiting a candidate's website, listening to interviews, and watching debates can also help voters stay informed. Using multiple sources and evaluating sources for accuracy remains one of the best ways to get good information.

It can also help to find out what's on your ballot. In addition to national races, your ballot will probably contain multiple state and local races. You might also need to vote on referendums and initiatives. Visit Vote411 to see an example ballot for your district.

Step 3: Check State Rules and Regulations

Before election day, check your state's rules and regulations. First, find out when you can vote. Most states offer early voting before the election, and most polling locations stay open for at least 12 hours on election day. In some states, you can request time off to vote. You can also research your state's rules on requesting a mail-in ballot.

It's a good idea to check your voter registration before your state's deadline to apply to confirm that the state received and processed your application to vote.

First time voters in 2020 should also plan to bring identification to the polls. Some states only accept a valid photo identification, while others accept non-photo ID. States that use all mail-in ballots do not require identification. Learn more about voter ID requirements in your state before you head to the polls.

Double Check Your Voter Registration Status

Step 4: Find Your Polling Place

State election offices assign polling locations based on a voter’s address. If you aren’t sure where to go to vote, you can either contact your election office or use the polling place lookup tool here.

Where Is My Polling Place?

Step 5: Cast Your Ballot

The final step in voting 101 is voting! Some voters cast a ballot in person at an early voting location or at their polling place on election day. These voters will need to ask an election worker for a ballot, sign their name, and fill out their ballot. In some states, you might need to show identification. As long as you get in line before the polling hours end in your state, you can vote.

For voters who choose a mail-in ballot, the state will send a ballot to their address. After filling out the ballot and signing their name, voters can return the ballot by mail or via a ballot drop box.

Breaking It Down: Voting Rights and Rules

When George Washington was elected America’s first president, only 6% 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 and 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 may 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 and Rules

Voter Identification

In 36 states, voters may need to show identification at the polls. In some states, voters must provide a valid photo identification, such as a driver's license. In other states, non-photo identification, like a voter registration card or paycheck, may work as a form of identification.

Voters without valid identification can still cast a provisional ballot. In some states, they can sign an affidavit to vote. In others, they must provide proof of identification after the election for their vote to count. Learn more about voter ID laws in each state.

Early Voting

Early voting allows registered voters to cast their ballot before election day. In some states, early voting starts 45 days before the election, while others only allow early voting within four days of the election.

In 38 states and D.C., voters can participate in early voting. An additional five states use all mail-in ballots, which also allows voters to submit their ballot early. Check out the early voting calendar for the dates in your state.

Closed vs. Open Primaries

In a closed primary, only members of the political party can vote for candidates. In an open primary, anyone can cast a ballot. In addition, some states allow undeclared voters to participate in primaries, while others only accept ballots from undeclared voters who join the party.

The system of state primary elections can be confusing. Voters can check the state primary election type in their state to find out the rules for voting in their primary.

FAQ: What To Expect at the Polls

If you're a first time voter, you might worry about what to expect at the polls. What's the voting process like? How do you vote? This section answers common questions about voting, including how to look up your ballot before election day and what to do if your driver's license address doesn't match your voter registration address.

Can I vote if the address on my driver’s license is different from the address on my registration?

It is possible to vote if your addresses don't match. Many states accept other forms of proof of residency, including a paycheck or bill. You can also update your driver's license address or update your voter registration with your current address.

Am I allowed to see the ballot before voting?

You can see what's on the ballot before you vote. Visit Vote411 to find a personalized ballot based on your address.

Can I get help from election workers?

You can always ask an election worker for help at your polling place. Election workers in some states can register voters on election day and administer provisional ballots if necessary.

Do I have to vote for every office listed on the ballot?

No, you do not have to vote for every office and initiative on the ballot. However, it's a good idea to get informed about every race, including state and local races, to make your voice heard.

Will voting in-state as a student will make me lose my federal aid?

Your voter registration status and the state where you vote does not affect your federal aid, including federal loans, grants, and work-study programs.

Can others find out how I voted?

U.S. elections use a secret ballot, so no one can see how you voted. However, public records will show that you cast a vote in the election.

Mail-In and Absentee Voting

Voting by mail has a long history. During the Civil War, Union soldiers sent home ballots by mail so they could still participate in elections. In the 2016 election, around one in four voters cast their ballot by mail.

What's the difference between mail-in voting and absentee voting? In most states, they're identical and the words are interchangeable. Some states, like Washington, Colorado, and Utah, automatically send ballots to every registered voter. In other states, voters need to request a mail-in ballot. Overall, 190 million eligible voters live in states that allow mail-in ballots.

Early Voting

Many states offer early voting where voters cast their ballot in person before election day. In some states, you can vote up to 45 days before election day, and several states allow early voting on the weekend. Check out the early voting calendar to find out the early voting dates in your state.

Absentee Voting

All 50 states allow absentee voting. However, eight states only allow absentee ballots for approved reasons, such as overseas deployment or illness. In these states, the coronavirus pandemic does not automatically mean voters can request an absentee ballot. Learn more about absentee ballot deadlines in every state.

Changing Residency to Vote

Many states require voters to live in the state for at least 30 days before the election. But residency for the purposes of voting isn't the same as residency to get in-state tuition, which is much harder. Attending college with a permanent or temporary address in the state usually qualifies students to register in that state. Learn more about voter registration rules.

Type of Elections

It's easy to get confused by the many types of elections. This table explains each type of election and what you'll find on the ballot.

General Election

When is it? - A general election refers to when political candidates are directly elected to office. Voters choose federal, state, and local representatives, and whether or not to pass ballot initiatives.

When does it happen? - Every four years, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Who/What are we voting on?

  • 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

When is it? - 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.

When does it happen? - Every four years in the two years before/after a general election

Who/What are we voting on?

  • Federal: U.S. Senate and House of Representatives
  • State Offices: Governor; Lieutenant Governor.
  • Municipal Offices: Mayor
Primary Election

When is it? - Primary elections help determine the candidate for each political primary prior to the general election.

When does it happen? - The process typically starts in late January or early February

Who/What are we voting on? - The candidate from each political party who will be nominated to run for president.

Closed Primary

When is it? - A type of primary election, closed primaries require voters to affiliate with their chosen party and vote for the candidate within that group.

When does it happen? - Closed primaries take place during the primary election cycle

Who/What are we voting on? - The candidate from each political party who will be nominated to run for president.

Open Primary

When is it? - A type of primary election, open primaries allow registered voters to remain unaffiliated and vote for a candidate from any party.

When does it happen? - Open primaries take place during the primary election cycle

Who/What are we voting on? - The candidate from each political party who will be nominated to run for president.

Convention

When is it? - Party conventions serve as the culminating event of the primary season after every state casts their votes in the primaries.

When does it happen? - Every four years at the end of the primary season

Who/What are we voting on? - Each political party hosts its own convention when the nominee of that party is officially chosen through the gathering of delegates from all 50 states.

Special or By-Election

When is it? - Special or by-elections take place when an office has become open between a general or mid-term election

When does it happen? - Dependent on when the office or seat becomes available

Who/What are we voting on? - These elections can be for offices on the local, state, or federal level.

Caucus

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

When does it happen? - During the primaries of a general election year

Who/What are we voting on? - A caucus selects the delegates who will represent the state at the party’s national convention.

Referendum

When is it? - 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.

When does it happen? - There is no set time when a referendum vote can be called.

Who/What are we voting on? - 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 and local and state government for over 15 years. In 2014, she managed the successful retention election of Tennessee Supreme Court Justices. She has 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.
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. Examples of acceptable IDs 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 offered by ProCon lets you review each presidential candidate’s stance on multiple 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 are decided at the state and local level. Nashville, for example, just finished a school board election in which only about 15% of eligible voters turned out. The school board determines which schools get funding, so it’s a massively important vote. Right now, the Metro Council is considering an affordable housing policy that may help those getting squeezed out by the city’s recent boom.

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, for example, we celebrate women’s equality day, a day on which women who fought -- literally fought and went to jail -- finally saw the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. We walk in the path of many who sacrificed so much for our right to vote. It’s important!

Other Ways To Participate in the Political Process

Voting isn't the only way to participate in the political process. You can also get involved in a grassroots movement, volunteer with a campaign, or run for office. Contacting elected representatives at the local, state, and federal levels also lets students make their voices heard.

Contacting Your Representatives

In a representative democracy, elected officials represent the people in their district. Anyone in the district can contact their representative to voice their view on issues, the official's votes, and policies.

While you might not be able to visit Congress in person, many local and state governmental bodies hold public town meetings and town halls. Elected officials and candidates for office often meet with their constituents in their district to discuss important issues.

Donating To a Cause or Campaign You Support

You can also donate to a cause or political campaign to get involved in the process. Grassroots movements, political advocacy groups, and nonprofit organizations often rely on donations to advocate for their cause.

In addition to donations, candidates for office hire volunteers and staff to work on their campaigns.

Volunteering With or Working for a Campaign

Political campaigns rely on volunteers and campaign staff to organize, reach out to voters, and win elections. Volunteering with a campaign can mean sending texts to voters to remind them about the election, hosting grassroots events in your local community, or helping the candidate raise money.

Campaign staffers conduct voter outreach, organize events, and research policies for their candidate. Many campaigns hire college students for summer positions and part-time paid opportunities.

Running for Office

If voting isn't enough, why not run for office?

The higher the office, the more effort it will take to run. Many politicians start their career at the local level, running for positions in their community and then moving up to the state or national level.

Some offices come with legal restrictions. For example, you have to be 25 to run for Congress, 30 to become a senator, and 35 to run for president. At the state level, some states set a minimum age to run for office, generally either 18 or 21.